What Muscovites get up to in traffic jams
- 30 January 2013
- From the section Magazine
The Russian capital is blighted by traffic jams - the total time drivers spend at a standstill each day equals about two and a half centuries. But when their cars grind to a halt, Moscow's commuters get creative to pass the time.
What do you do when you're stuck for an age in a traffic jam? I like to write poetry:
"Probka" is the Russian word for jam.
Not the sweet kind.
The street kind.
The kind that clogs, like cholesterol, arteries, the roads,
And makes my commute so slow,
Like a caterpillar in its chrysalis,
I too feel metamorphosis,
Behind the wheel in Moscow traffic.
From correspondent to Slavic snail
Inching along, with my metal shell, in gridlock hell.
Horns blaring, drivers swearing, all staring
At the jam, the probka, stretching well into the distance.
It's not exactly Pushkin, but it passes the time.
Thinking about it, I probably have time to compile a whole encyclopaedia on the way home from work, because every day I spend about two hours stuck in Moscow traffic. That's more than 20 full days a year in the car, going nowhere.
But the good thing about Russian congestion is that it sparks creativity. And Muscovites are far more creative than I am when stuck in a jam.
Elena Piskunova, director of a fitness training centre, works out
Elena Piskunova likes to sing melancholic Russian folk songs in traffic jams - she claims it's the best way to relax muscles and relieve stress. Sitting in traffic congestion, she demonstrates by blasting out a performance of Steppe, The Endless Steppe!
Piskunova has also developed some special breathing exercises. One involves breathing in and out twice very fast through the nose to boost concentration. (A word of warning: blow your nose first with a tissue to avoid mess.)
"I love exercises in the car which keep me looking feminine," she says. Having made sure that the handbrake is firmly on, she takes a tennis ball and places it between her knees. Then she tenses her buttocks. "It gives me the feeling that I'm floating up on a cushion of air," she tells me. "I'd float right out into the atmosphere if there was a hole in the car roof."
Piskunova is philosophical about gridlock. "There are very few places left in the world where we can be left alone to think about the important things in life. As you sit there not moving, watching the traffic lights changing back and forth, this is the perfect time to stop and think - is this a journey you really need to make? Why are you going? And what would happen if you didn't arrive?"
Olga Shkuta, an interpreter, knits
Olga Shkuta wastes no time in traffic jams. When her car comes to a complete halt, on goes the handbrake and out come her knitting needles. When I join her in the jam, she's knitting a sock.
"Socks have a lot of parts that are relatively simple, which you don't need to focus on, so you can knit them while you're stuck in traffic. Knitting takes away all the stress of being stuck somewhere against my will, because you're actually doing something useful."
What's more, she claims that gridlock improves the quality of her stitching.
"At home, in your usual knitting place, you're comfortable, but when you're in a new environment, or there's something else going on, you change the way you do something. You come up with new knitting techniques and find more creative solutions."
I ask her why she thinks the Moscow traffic jams are so bad. "There's too many of us. There are too many people, too many cars. People choose to take their cars, they choose to get stuck in traffic so they can get stuck and have some time for themselves."
Tennis club owner Alexander Erokhiny met his future wife
"When I was stuck in traffic, I spotted this beautiful woman in the car next to me," recalls Alexander Erokhiny. "So I decided to get acquainted with her. I wound down my window, and asked for her mobile number.
"She shouted out the digits and I called her right away. I invited her out to a cafe that very evening. Two years later, Marina and I were married."
Sitting in Erokhiny's car - in another traffic jam - I ask the tennis coach how, in that very first phone call, he managed to persuade her to go on a date with him.
"I'm a sportsman," Erokhiny explains. "I'm used to winning and getting my own way. Plus, I used my sense of humour to win her over."
Was it love at first sight? "On her part, yes, I think it was," he says. "In my case, I'd had plenty of relationships before and I was ready to settle down and start a family."
Erokhiny claims many Muscovites are on the look-out for passion in the probka. "While they're in a jam, lots of drivers cast their eyes on who's in the vehicle beside them. Many of them will then try to start a conversation and see where it leads."
Sound designer Vasily Filatov creates new effects
In another Moscow probka, Vasily Filatov has come to a complete standstill. He gets out his laptop, connects it to the car's sound system and gets on with his job - creating unusual effects.
Filatov presses a button and suddenly the car is filled with the vrmm! vrmm! of a Soviet vacuum cleaner, which he recorded recently. After a few deft clicks and sound mixes, he transforms the communist-era cleaning machine into a Star Wars spaceship zooming through the cosmos.
Filatov isn't zooming anywhere. He's stuck inside what he calls his "tin can world" in the jam. Filatov spends between five and six hours every day in Moscow traffic.
But he's still a big fan of congestion. "I really like absolute traffic jams," he tells me.
"If the jam is a disaster, if everyone stops, you have more time. It's beautiful. You can learn a language, you can record sounds, you can do everything, just sitting in a traffic jam.
"It's important, too, to smile at the people who are stuck around you, because we don't have enough joy in our lives. A smile is like a shower. When you're tired after work, it gives you renewed energy."
Harmonica player Sasha Soloviev rehearses
When he's in a jam, Sasha Soloviev the harmonica player doesn't get the blues - he plays them. Behind the wheel of his car, he sings me a selection of his favourite songs about love and life. Gridlock not only gives him the opportunity to practice, but also to promote his music.
"When I'm staying so long in traffic jams, I shout out to other drivers, 'Hey, open your window!' They open the window and I say, 'Come to my concerts, listen to my music.'
"Sometimes on the way to a concert I get stuck in a jam with my band. We start playing something and people come up to the car to get a closer look.
"Sometimes I just think about life. And in traffic jams, we can be sitting so long - five hours just thinking about life."
Perhaps we all need moments like this. Moments when we're forced to put on the brakes, to slow down, stop - and to think.
But Russians don't just think about life. They try to make the most of every minute.
Even when they're trapped inside those metal shells, going nowhere, on Russian roads.
The Muscovites spoke to Steven Rosenberg for BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House on Sunday - listen again via iPlayer