Saturday, 9 June 2012

Makeover, part 3

Read the first and second part of this story.

Now comes the difficult bit. I don't think Staffan gave much thought to my wardrobe, but if he thought I looked like a poor relative from the countryside, he never showed it. The presents he brought me were of practical nature: a pretty nightgown, a pair of corduroy trousers that were high fashion then, a soft sweater with Nordic pattern. My workmates, who were initiated in my secret relationship – as a faithful Soviet citizen, you were not supposed to fall in love with foreigners – would ask, with envy in their voices: “What did he bring you this time?” and would get tremendously disappointed. Looking back, I don't think I was disappointed because I wanted books more than clothes, and my friends' expectations made me still more reluctant toward any material tokens of affection. If I wanted anything, I would be too proud to ask.

Packing to move to Sweden, I felt ambivalent, and again, my friends' comments were not helpful. You will buy everything new there, they said. And I gave away clothes, shoes and accessories. On the other hand, I definitely didn't want to come to Sweden as a beggar bride, so I bought some nice new things. For certain reasons I was going on a guest visa, therefore I couldn't ship anything, but travelled with two suitcases and my eight-year-old son.

Staffan wasn't too tactful about my trousseau. He threw away my Czech winter boots which he said stank of rubber; he said nobody in Sweden had fur hats, and in the first place he said my son's clothes were ridiculous, so the first thing I did was get him things just like other kids had. I had been allowed to change a little money which was about enough to equip him and get me a pair of more appropriate winter boots. Don't misunderstand me. I am sure Staffan would have given me as much money as he could afford if I had asked, but I was too proud to ask. Before we met I could support myself and my son, and suddenly I was wholly at someone else's will.

Staffan was renting a house cheaply from a very rich friend who right at the time of our arrival had cleared her wardrobes and had a huge pile of clothes on the lounge floor, to be collected by Salvation Army. I salvaged half of the pile and not only wore the clothes myself, but sent some back to Moscow when I could.

My mother-in-law told me many years later that she felt sorry for me then because I had so poor clothes. She was especially referring to my French haute couture sheepskin coat, made of patches of various shades of brown and beige. She thought I was so poor I had to sew my own winter coat from leftover bits.

Then I was pregnant, and the problem was solved for a while as I bought a maternity tunic and wore it with different T-shirts (from the pile). My granny came to stay with us that summer and reported back home that we were very poor and that I only had one dress. The latter was true because I did wear the same maternity tunic all the time. The former was a matter of reference frames. Staffan wasn't a millionaire, as all Russians thought all foreigners were, but he paid two child allowances, and I had no income at all. We rented this huge seventeenth-century mansion, but we had no furniture to fill it with, so it did look a bit miserable. And I thought I had stronger priorities than clothes. But when we went to Moscow first time, after a year and a half, I felt I couldn't wear the same clothes I had when I left, so I got some new outfits. It was early '80s, with pastel colours and soft cotton and linnen. My Moscow friend Alyona told me afterwards that her workmates had asked whether her Swedish friend also walked around in faded pyjama bottoms, like all other foreigners. Which was exactly what I did. I suppose my Moscow friends were shocked at my poor taste, now that I was rich and could buy silks and velvets.

Most clothes I bought in those days came from mail order. Most of my children's clothes I made myself, except for Sergej's. He had enough reasons to be bullied in school. When my parents started visiting us regularly, they would always bring clothes (and other presents) that we didn't want because they looked ridiculous in Sweden. They would bring me a mink hat, and I had to explain about animal rights, because otherwise they would have brought me a mink coat next time. They got this idea that we were in need, and I didn't know how to tell them to stop bringing tablecloths and towels and tea sets and ugly soft toys. Whenever I went to Moscow, my mother would call her seamstress who would make a dress or a jacket for me. A few years later I would take them back to Moscow and give them away. Then I would buy heaps of cheap clothes at sales and bring them to Moscow for friends and cousins. It was all upside down and made no sense at all.

My way of dealing with it was to tell myself and anyone who was listening that we had other priorities. We travelled a lot. This made my Russian friends shut up. Although they still wondered why I couldn't have everything now that I lived abroad, where, as everyone knows, streets are paved with gold.

To be continued.

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