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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Recognizing Russia's Charm From a Distance

A British friend and I were sitting in a small cafe in Soho. We hadnt seen each other since the August 1998 financial crisis, which left banks reeling and many expats here suddenly jobless. Nuno, a British citizen of Portuguese descent, left Russia after the crash with a heavy heart. But before he left, he announced that he hated this country and wasnt going to suffer through the next "horrible Russian winter." He suggested that I leave, too, because a bigger crisis was looming and the country probably wouldnt survive it. He said he would never return and would try to forget about the country where he had lost money in one of its dying banks.

After he left, Nuno never called me. He answered none of my e-mails. I didnt know where he was exactly or what he was doing. But I was in London recently, and as I was flipping through my phone book, I ran across his parents number. I called Nunos father, who said his son was in London; he gave me his sons mobile number, so I rang him up.

"Hello?" Nunos tone surprised me. He said I couldnt imagine how happy he was that I was in town. "We definitely have to meet tonight," he insisted. "Im going to cancel all my appointments for today."

Four hours later, we were sitting in the Soho cafe. London was celebrating the end of the workweek, and those who have ever been in Soho on a Friday night will know what I mean. People there party as if its the last day of their lives. The sounds of Friday in Soho are an amazing mixture of thousands of legs walking on brick streets, furious sirens from police cars rushing nowhere, music blaring from dozens of bars and cafes, loud laughter and drunken voices raised in song. The smells of Friday in Soho are a fantastic bouquet of garlic soup, onions fried with sausages, Indian spices, Chinese duck, coffee and pastries. The spirit of Friday in Soho is the madness of people suddenly high on alcohol or drugs and the realization that theyve been released from five days of hard work and can enjoy the next two nights in the craziest possible ways.

But Nuno seemed indifferent to the joys of Friday in Soho. His mind was thousands of miles away. He asked me not to speak English; he wanted to hear Russian. He asked a lot of strange questions, which made me feel that he hadnt forgotten the country where he had lived for two years, where winter is "horrible" and people "too proletarian." I noticed that his Russian hadnt gotten worse it had actually improved and he spouted bits of poetry that even I didnt know.

Nuno asked me questions I would never have expected of him. He asked about my mother, whether she still cooks the same fabulous borshch that she had made for him. He enthused that borsch was "a fantastic Russian discovery," that my mothers borshch was the best hed ever eaten. He asked about our mutual friends, buddies with whom we occasionally drank vodka. He remembered that the best treatment for a vodka hangover was rassol, the juice of freshly pickled cucumbers.

It struck me that this was a very strange conversation to be having in festive central London. The man who had once denounced my country was now waxing lyrical about it. Nuno said that the Russian winter once so hateful was in fact "brilliant," while the English winter was "awful," rainy and damp.

He told me that his life hadnt been easy since he had returned from Moscow. Unable to pay the mortgage for his flat, he had received some warnings from the bank. Then, when he had returned to London from a weekend out of town, he found a lock on his door; the bank had repossessed the flat, and Nuno said he realized "where the stability of the banks is coming from."

"That would never have happened in Russia," Nuno said ruefully.

He eventually got a job, but on his salary, a mere 1,600 quid, he could afford much less in London than he could in Moscow for his former salary of $1,500.

"Its really tough here," Nuno said, rolling a cigarette. I reminded him that in Moscow he used to prefer Davidoffs to other cigarettes. -He laughed. "Forget about what happened in Moscow!" he said. "Everyone in London is rol-l-ing cigarettes. It reminds them of the 1950s. But most people cant afford the real stuff, which starts at ?4. - If you only knew how I miss all the things I had in Moscow that I dont have now," he said nostalgically.

We eventually adjourned for the night, but the next day, I visited Nuno at his London flat. Actually, it wasnt really a flat, just a surprisingly tiny room he rented from a friend for ?70 a week. There was hardly any place to sit, and the place was crammed with only the most minimal furniture.

Nuno asked me if I remembered his Moscow digs: a huge two-room apartment behind the McDonalds near the Ulitsa 1905 Goda Metro station. I had visited him there so many times, and we used to sit in the enormous kitchen and drink tea. Nuno said he missed that kitchen; looking around his place, I understood why. He said he couldnt even think about having a flat like that in London it would be outrageously expensive.

The following week, with my time in London running out, Nuno and I met at a very strange Russian restaurant called U Lyuby (At Lyubas), near the Angel Tube station. Nuno said he went there every week to tutor a student who was studying Russian. "She pays me just ?7 an hour. But its not because of money at all," he said. "Its because I like the language so much." Nuno said he wanted to help the student realize how beautiful the Russian language was.

I glanced around the restaurant, and it struck me as quite a strange place. I was probably the only Russian there, except for the waitress and a man, probably in his 50s, who was playing old Soviet tunes on an electronic piano. The waitress, a good-looking blonde, asked Nuno what we were going to drink. "The usual," Nuno replied. The waitress returned with two small shots of Zubrovka, a strong, pepper-flavored Ukrainian vodka. "I love this!" Nuno said, downing his shot.

Finally, it was time for me to return to Moscow. On the day of my departure, Nuno accompanied me to the airport. He seemed a bit sad. He said that people never truly appreciated the country they lived in, that they realized its charms only after they had left. "Ya vernus," "Ill be back," he told me. "I miss the Russian people and my friends. I want to come back!"

I boarded the plane. And as I sat there, headed toward Moscow, I wondered if Nuno would ever really come back. Only time will tell.

Max Ognev is a freelance journalist. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.