The conversation started three hours into the journey and proceeded with a rhythm set by the motion of the train, overlaid with second languages and punctuated by a whistle of cold air that had somehow made its way through the folds of heavy, worn rubberised cloth. They were en route to a holiday apartment in Leningrad and I had one last night in the USSR. The decision of where we would meet later was limited by my knowledge of the city: the most obvious landmark, for a time and date of sorts.
The palatial square in front of the Hermitage was smothered with a light dusting of snow, and in the distance a single silhouette with an massively oversized head that as it drew near turned out to be the bushy fur of her coat hood, an experiment in warmth-survival fashion.
In any given encounter how much time do you have to study the face in front of you? To take in their symmetry, proportions, blemishes, the nuances of in how it moves during conversation, how it reacts to what you say, your body language? How much attentiveness is too much? Not enough?
She wasn’t quite what I remembered from the train, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t either. Not that it mattered.
The resource allocation of our personal vehicle was out of kilter with the planned economy — hold out your hand and the first person wanting to make a bit of money on the side would pull over, negotiate a price and drive. The first taxi careened for a good twenty minutes across the mid-winter roads before the driver realised he had a slow flat. It took a few minutes to hail another, and a further forty to reach the destination. The ad-hoc taxi pulled up to the apartment block, we waited an age for an elevator to take us up and up.
Her holiday apartment was prison-sparse – with bare walls, a single square table in the kitchen hemmed in by four chairs, and two single beds in the living room. Music tinnied from a small radio, conversation was pleasantly stilted. Her friend had a friend, hard liquor was drunk, lights went out, and beds were, eventually, slept in.
I was the first to wake.
The window from the hallway looked out onto a half-lit winter scene – grey tower blocks as far as the eye could see, rows of giant dominoes rising out of a low mist. The elevator clanked somewhere below, not wanting to wait I dizzied down thirty flights of stairs and into the dawn.
I had no idea where I was.
In a city that I’d never been to before.
With a vocabulary limited to ordering vodka.
And a flight out of the country in a few hours.
Hands stuffed into the jacket pocket fingering a crumple of roubles, surreptitiously exchanged on the black market with the waiter the evening before (by travelling companions who were holed up in a hotel). It took 20 minutes of crunching fresh snow underfoot to the nearest road before finding a pole with a painted sign and underneath and a queue.
I don’t know if you’ve ever stood in line for a bus to Fuckknowswhereski, with enough time to systematically take in the context: my thin brown coat was out of sorts with the heavy blacks and grays; local norms dictated that you stand close enough to be in the single mass to slow down the morning air but far enough apart to maintain personal space; no touching; everyone else’s fur-lined leather gloves; nobody speaks. The sharp mold-lines from poured concrete rising up the center of the pole to a needle like hole through which the sign was threaded; the row of double-digits on the sign — blocky typography fine for here but that would rapidly struggle to scale with more routes. And wondering then, as now how a Soviet urban planner would bring to this stop 5 tons of metal and rubber and seats and hand rails to take commuters and little old me into what I hoped would be downtown Leningrad.
It pulled up, I shuffled on with the herd, (without paying, to this day my only discrete unpaid debt) and stood straining out of the window at any visible clue for where I might be. By the time the Metro sign revealed itself, my jacket arm was soaked from keeping condensation at bay. The station map situated as the last stop on the longest line, on the opposite side of town to the hotel but at least with a clear destination and map of how to get there.
Who knew then that you could make a career out of decoding queueing behaviours.
Been unpacking boxes this past week, my life in Shanghai transplanted to San Francisco. One of the hidden blessings of a everything-you-own-into-boxes transpacific move is that it provides multiple opportunities to flirt with the past: firstly in deciding what to take and what to leave behind; the momentary linger as objects are unpacked on arrival; and then once again in trying to figure out where things will live — center stage, on the periphery, or out of sight. I came across a photo album that hadn’t been opened for a decade and got to thinking about some early travel experiences – including this short trip as a teenager to Leningrad. The process of reflection triggering a number of trajectories:
A person’s motivation to commit a face to memory?
Our ability to recall faces and with what level of accuracy?
The facial features we extenuate and those we smooth over? Mental blusher
The relative importance of accurate recollection?
The triggers for recollection?
The additional tools or props we use to capture the context? And how the accuracy, and detail and volume of what we collect is rapidly, rapidly growing.
To have a digital trace of every person you’ve slept with.
To be in someone else’s trace – the genealogy of sex, intimate moments, and diseases, and children.
How those traces are accessed and by whom, when and the story telling that takes place around them.
To never have to guess someone’s name the morning after.
The social interaction norms that over the years have remained steady, and those that have changed and why?
Greetings, where people stand, gesture, the rhythm of the conversation. What is said? What is inferred? What is avoided? And why?
What is inferred? In a world of infinite knowledge at your fingertips (and vocal chords and eyelashes and …)
The value that is inherent in a face to face encounter versus other modes of interaction?
And projecting forward into our future perfect…
How location is inherent in the before, during and after of an interaction?
Assumed fluidity in decision making: the point at which decisions need to be made, and the consequences of making or breaking commitments around those decisions?
The things that are recorded (and by what tools) in everyday interactions, and how they are looped back into the conversation?
The information we have going into and coming out of any given context?
How our memories of others are formed, and how this is shifting from what we project onto them, to what they project out. And ultimately who controls the channel through which these projections occur (and their motivations).
The gestures we use to create (machine readable) memorable moments?
What lingers from a conversation. What is replayed? What is replayed? When it is replayed? And whether the replaying moment is fed back to the other party? The norms around sharing your biochemical feed, your heart rate, moments of calm, moments of excess. And the business models around sharing norms?
It’s worth saying again that the importance of you being there is you being there.
Photo above from the the Palace Square in front of the Hermitage/Winter Palace before the winter darkness kicked in. The USSR would be gone in two years.