We don’t seem to have history -History, even- on the news anymore. Just economics. The curriculum’s been changed. Now it’s notation agencies, corporations gobbling each other up, politicians pretending they’re in control. I know popular wisdom says money rules the world, and that all these mind-numbing numbers are defining our future even as we stare uncomprehendingly at them, but no matter how cataclysmic they are, they never feel real, immediate, portentous, or game-changing.
I blame the past –my past. Born in 1979, I grew up in history-heavy times. Always some new war, hot or cold. Iran-Iraq. The Berlin Wall coming down. The USSR coming down. That kind of stuff. Awesomeness, in colour, whacking us in the face from our brand new TV set (now a museum piece; Telefunken, if memory serves). I never missed the 8 o’clock news. I was made very aware that, less lucky, I would have been part of the show. I haven’t watched a whole edition since the late nineties. We had fewer news outlets, yet everyone always seemed to know what was going on. Information overload clearly has the opposite effect.
Or it may be that those were the first images of war, strife, liberation, tension, of humanity at large that were imprinted on my brain, and you always remember your first. There have been so many more, only in the intervening 25-odd years, that I’d fail to list them all. You get jaded, it becomes just another item. History: it ‘s just one bloody thing after the other.
I’m desperately trying to work out if I’m already falling prey to childhood nostalgia. Or does anyone else, older or younger, get the impression that back then, we felt like everything took place in one continuum, that there was a sense of things moving, sometimes deliberately, sometimes tortuously, coming to a head, a point to it all, even when the news was bad? We were done with WW2, getting done with the Cold War, sorting out famine in Ethiopia, and surely someone would manage to find a sensible end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ? Now what I see and hear all seems like sparkling shards of an exploded TV screen billowing in a directionless wind. Each one bearing a tiny little piece of the action, emitting, transmitting, but is anyone receiving when it would take weeks to absorb even one day’s worth of world events ?
I’ve traced back my fascination with all things Eastern European to the continuous stream of news from beyond the iron curtain French TV news drip-fed me on throughout the 80s, culminating with the fall of the Berlin Wall occurring on my 10th birthday, shortly before we changed decades, and worlds.
The past may be a different country, but it may be travelled to by going to places that haven’t changed very much through the years, or to those that remind you now of what your country was then. I’ve found bits of my childhood country in Russia and Kazakhstan, and I don’t doubt there are many other places in the developing world, as we like to call it, that would present me with the same fragments of a place that time left behind. That weird feeling I sometimes got in the streets of St Petersburg can probably be rationalised: of course I’d get flashbacks, in a remote part of town with fewer cars than I’ve become accustomed to see, with ad stickers in shop windows that could have been lifted from the food shop I used to go to with my mum. Those sticky price labels that you have to peel off one square millimetre at a time, when’s the last time you saw them in the west? Even my local corner shop in Barbès doesn’t use them anymore. There, outside of western clothes shops, they still rule. Everything big and small is conspiring to make you feel like you’re caught in a time warp. The music, the signage, logos, typefaces: so much of what’s been redesigned and repackaged in our lands is still waiting its turn as you go east.
Of course the forgotten collides with the spanking new at every street corner, but even in big cities like St Petersburg and Moscow, the overall look of places, people and things often made me feel 8 years old again.
This probably reads like mockery, or criticism, from the point of view of nations that have long been fixated on reaching western standards. It’s anything but. A scarcity of billboards and the non-existence of video advertisement in public transports is a thing more and more of us spoilt kids have come to crave. I hadn’t felt as free to point my eyes at what interested me, as opposed to what some advert executive wanted me to look at, in a decade and a bit. There I could forget for a while that history was made by participants in the free market economy pushing their wares, and remember what it felt like to believe it was made by people wanting things to happen.
Murielle Gandre has lived in London and St Petersburg, and is (for now) in Paris. Trained in film production, design and scenic painting, she spent the last ten years being a jack of all trades with variously successful results but no regrets whatsoever. She has now forced herself to narrow down her range of activites to travel writing and decorative painting. She enjoys cafés with outdoors tables, figure skating, and the smell of jet fuel in the morning.