While there is a lot that I don’t understand about fashion — approximately everything that there is to understand about fashion — perhaps the most elusive of its mysteries is how the products on sale never seem to match the season during which they are being sold.
True, in Britain it doesn’t make much of a difference if the year’s summer clothing is released during winter, just so long as it can be bought alongside an umbrella. Here in Syktyvkar, however, the gap between available clothing and atmospheric conditions could hardly be more pronounced: short sleeves vs. severe snowfall.
I thought I had accounted for this by adding a few warmer items to my wardrobe in the week leading up to my departure. But while my Tog 24 quilted jacket, floppy-eared padded hat and reindeer-adorned, ex-Christmas scarf duly kept me warm for the first month of my stay, they couldn’t even begin to compete with the worsening weather and -20 temperatures of late November.
I replaced my shoes relatively early on, but was taken by surprise when after a short bout of illness I found myself standing outside in -9 conditions. A mad dash around the shops — spread generously across the city — left me even more uncertain of what to buy than usual. I didn’t want to look like an idiot abroad, unable to tell the difference between his and her knitwear, but I didn’t want to look like an idiot abroad with frostbitten fingers, either.
It was the language barrier that once again proved my biggest obstacle, not to mention the foreign measurements of size. As I hunted through the various tags and labels for a number what could be taken to denote price, it proved almost impossible to tell what that sum reflected: was it an indication of fashionability or warmth? Or was my internal currency converter on the blink?
After a brief trip to Lewine left me peering into a mirror, padded to the knees and choking on some ambiguous fur, I turned to my colleagues in the hope of assistance. I had heard elusive rumours of a large retail park on the outskirts of the city, and I wanted in. After rejecting a complicated and convoluted series of bus routes, one of the teachers offered to drive me up the next morning.
I have often bemoaned the homogenisation of high streets, particularly the way in which every British town has been pruned and preened to look exactly the same. Or worse, like a dour, waterlogged imitation of some American ideal from twenty years ago. The truth is, however, I’ve missed the Boots and the Waterstones and the Tescos and the Starbucks. I’ve missed the convenience and the familiarity of knowing exactly what I’m going to get.
Recently, it’s become so bad that I’ve even begun dreaming about Edinburgh Airport. I’ve been fascinating on a near-nightly basis about buying The Times from WH Smith, ordering a slice of coffee and walnut cake from Costa and talking to shopkeepers about trivialities in English. I’ve already planned by first few purchases once back on British soil. Please don’t judge me.
As I exited the car — the third I’ve been in since I arrived in Russia, and the third to make me fearful for my life while simultaneously delighting me with an all-new array of hyper-mod-cons — I felt a surge of relief as I basked in the florescent glow of макси’s various big, if not necessarily familiar brands. Christmas had finally arrived in Syktyvkar, in all of its cynical and commercial glory.
The interior was a thing of glittering beauty, a multi-story mega-centre that seemed to have everything that I’d missed most about the outside world: fast-food outlets (albeit without anything so mouth-wateringly recognisable as McDonalds or Subway), faux-friendly coffee shops with shelves lined with saccharine syrups, and a genuine supermarket that sold more than just food. It even had ESCALATORS.
It was all of the usual elements, but repackaged in a way that still felt foreign and strangely exotic. Some of the products were even the same, even if they were repackaged for a new consumer: Lynx deodorant was being marketed as Axe, Galaxy chocolate had been rebranded Dove, and Walkers crisps were instead sold as Lays.
After only half an hour of shopping (though, in all honesty, I could have stayed there all day), I had a new jacket (fur-free), a woollen turtle-necked jumper (that’s almost as warm as it was ugly) and a shopping basket loaded with Coca Cola, Peanut M&Ms and Cif antibacterial spray. After a week of illness, constant cold and no internet, it was exactly what I needed to perk myself back up again. As shallow or ignorantly Western as that might sound.
On the way back — a route that seemed to have been custom-designed to show me just how much of Syktyvkar I had left to explore — my mood continued to improve. We passed “Paris” (the road itself drawing a thin line between deprivation and decadence), various suburbs and a truly I eye-catching cathedral that I can’t wait to explore further. Best of all, we happened upon the new site of the travelling zoo, meaning that the second half of my stay would be free from animal calls and my walk to work unmarred by reminders of the dismal conditions that the attractions were being made to suffer.
As of this weekend, there are only three weeks left to go. It’s time to make the most of them.