Sometimes I head up what is known as "Speakers" classes in English, where the idea is to introduce a topic, supplemented perhaps by some reading or listening material, and then the class simply forms a circle (if it is small) or breaks off into groups (if it is large). We have discussed a lot of subjects over the years, but one thing I enjoy is just to give them a single word, perhaps a concept word such as "Success", "Beauty", or "Friendship" -- and see how many ideas will come out of it.
For example, many people associate success with earning a lot of money, while others take a different tack entirely. Concepts of beauty run from the conventional to the extreme, and it is hard to pin down exactly what constitutes a "beautiful" day. In Russia, a sunny day is always a gift, but I remember back when I was a melancholy young poet dreaming of a life of wandering the streets of Paris, and I thought that nothing could beat an autumn day spent tramping through the fiery, dying leaves dreaming pensive dreams about meeting some bohemian girl named Francois. A friend of mine tells me that when she goes to sleep at night she always turns on a YouTube links that allow her to drift off to the sound of heavy rain.
"Friendship" to me has become a concept word now, not nearly as simple to understand as I once imagined. Where (and when) I grew up -- Eisenhower was still the American President if that gives you some idea -- the United States remained essentially a nation of small towns, with a lot of farms in between. I spent part of my childhood in a place called Martinsburg, West Virginia. Just up the road was Winchester, Virgina, and not far in the other direction was Hagerstown, Maryland. (This was known as the 'tri-state area because each of the towns was in a different state due to the peculiarities of the geography.) The greaseballs from this nowheresville used to beat the hell out of each other if someone strayed onto their turf. For example, if you went beer-drinking in Winchester and the punks there saw that you had a West Virginia license plate you might have to fight your way out of the tavern. High culture.
I would bet that among the old people who haven't yet died off are many who have been there all their lives and never considered going anywhere else. In other words, the same guys who played baseball with each other as kids were expected to serve as pallbearers at one other's funeral, however, many years later it took them to die. A lot of the guys probably served in the army because the draft was in force back then and so they always had a lot of war and whore stories to tell each other if they survived whatever skirmish Uncle Sam happened to be at the time. (I think it was Korea back then). Meanwhile, the women put the wash up on the clotheslines to dry. From out back of my house, you could see ribbons of sheets hanging in rows that gradually dissipated into the distance.That world is gone now. And back then, the ladies really did gossip over the backyard fence. Of course, spending your life shoulder to shoulder with a certain bunch of people doesn't necessarily mean a lifelong love-in. There is nothing that can match the hatred that can develop in small communities.
The point is that things still changed slowly in those days, not in a nanosecond like now. People mostly felt that tomorrow would not be a hell of a lot different from today, and they were right. Especially in post-war America, as the so-called Baby Boomer generation materialized and the middle class was solid, the world seemed pretty stable. And so you grew up with the same boys and saw them choose a familiar gal, marry her, and start having kids right away. The young women had few prospects other than to find a suitable husband unless they became school teachers, secretaries, and the like. Divorce was rare, not because people loved each other more, but because the pressure from church and community was still very strong -- and above all because women did not have the education and economic independence that many of them have today. Their families didn't want them back or to rescue them from a bad marriage, so they had to stay with Jack the Husband even if he was really Jack the Asshole.
But your friends were your friends. You actually saw each other, if such a concept still rings a bell with some of you. You met face-to-face and you actually did things together (am I making sense?). Friendship back then was not a cyberspace affair. It was in the flesh.
Maybe something of what I have been describing is still true in rural Russia, those towns 'way out there' where there is little mobility. To my infinite discredit, I have never yet made the long, aimless, meandering tour of Russia that I have always promised myself. I mean, I say I love the country but in truth, Moscow is all I know. I hear plenty of horror stories about life in the regions, especially as regards alcoholism, but I am certain that many good people reside those towns and villages all the same. I am equally sure that their expectations of life differ starkly and dramatically from our in Moscow.
So I return to the notion of friendship. In Moscow, I know thousands of people. Literally. I have been on good terms with many of them as they have come and gone in my life. And, say what you want about Facebook -- positive or negative -- it certainly enables us to stay connected, even to 'eavesdrop', so to speak, on the events of people we haven't seen for a while. If I want to know what Tanya so-and-so or Dima whatshisname has been up to, I can click on their homepage, look at the photos and read the blah-blah ( a good way for me to practice my Russian). Strangely enough, I have seen some women whose beauty I loved from a distance starting back in 2007 change over the decade I have lived here...seen that beauty alter into something richer or poorer amid the general happenings of their lives. I have seen flirtatious girls who were 20-something become 30-something matrons. In other words, without ever going near them, I can sort of follow them on their odyssey amid the years, husbands, children, etc. Like watching a movie of their lives. I do not mean that I am some sort of voyeur or that I do this often. But it is a way of maintaining the illusion of friendship without having it in any practical sense.
Am I mistaken, or is there a bit of sadness implicit in what I have just said?
In truth, I am not sure what is meant by the word "friendship" anymore. Is it something that ought to remain more or less permanent, or has it become the stuff of situations -- kind of like a freelance professional who really doesn't belong anywhere in particular but just makes the rounds as the situation demands? People change locations and jobs so quickly these days, and the blinding speed of the technology coupled with its-- in my opinion -- disastrous effects on human attention span, have turned most everything, including friendship, into a blur of soundbites. Friendship must, therefore, be taken on trust, not reinforced by meaningful activities.
There are three men in Moscow whom I would regard as among my 'best' friends. Sasha, Artem, and Max. The first two I met at the SNOB magazine office back in 2009. The third is a guy who makes films and we have sometimes worked together, me doing the voice-over in English when required. Out of that, we became good friends. I used to think of Sasha and Artem as 'close' friends. I cannot say that anymore because I have only seen these guys a handful of times in the last three or four years. We are always just too damned busy. So we make overtures, such as SMS-es and emails from time to time, and always plan to have a drink together that never gets poured.
We have the illusion of being friends.
In Moscow -- and perhaps everywhere in the hubs of modern civilization -- we learn to plug in what is needed. A spare part here, a different one there. Women, drinking buddies, colleagues....a wilderness of faces and names in the end -- to quote Shakespeare -- "signifying nothing." Well, perhaps that is overstating the case. But I worry about these things. My wife and dogs, for example, live in Bulgaria while I continue to work in Moscow. It has been so for three years. I love my family, but they are there and I am here. I tell them it will change, but the city holds me. There is money, excitement, and sensuality among these ghosts that hurtle past me in Moscow. And I can speak to my dear wife on Skype any time I want. And call to my dogs.
===Eric Richard Le Roy===