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Mistaken for Jewish in cold, grand Moscow

  • 19 February 2014

There are always things nobody tells you about. Background things taken for granted, only noticed by strangers. I had never been to Europe before and so discovered over my first breakfast at Schmerlenbach that German pepper and salt shakers are the reverse of what I grew up with in Australia. Heavily peppered bacon and scrambled eggs.

There are things you don't see coming — only going, when the moment has passed.

I have had a beard for at least three decades, since I went bald in my mid-30s. Once ginger blond, now silver grey, I have usually worn it Ned Kelly, ZZ Top length. I suppose I keep it out of sheer laziness, inertia, but I have settled into it. Most of my acquaintances have never known me without it and I do believe that were I to take it off and wear a hat some people would not recognise me. I admit, I quite like that prospect. It has possibilities. Who is that unmasked man?

The beard identifies, classifies me: Bushy, Bikie, Santa Claus. Once, in North Perth, an elderly Greek lady, bless her, asked if I was a papas. I get the Santa thing every year as soon as those white-gloved, red-suited phonies set up their thrones and cameras in the suburban malls. The confused, slack-jawed toddlers mostly just stare at me striding by, but every so often one gets up to speed and says G'day to Mr Ho Ho. I can live with that.

When I announced that I intended to realise a long-standing wish to visit Russia, a few well-meaning flatterers told me I'd fit right in because I looked like Solzhenitsyn. There are no two ways about it — at a certain age, in certain photographs, I have a passing resemblance to Aleksandr Isayevich. Even some Russians thought so. A down-on-his-luck artist I met one morning in Borby Square beside the statue of Venedikt Erofeev's drunken commuter told me so.

The desire to visit Russia has hovered in me for as long as I can remember. Something I heard or saw as a young child must have slipped into my imagination and took root. Peter and the Wolf, perhaps. Anyway, so help me, I read Crime and Punishment and War and Peace when I was 16 — swallowed them whole. Then followed all the Dostoyevsky I could get my hands on, along with Lermontov, Turgenev, Gogol, Battleship Potemkin, Pasternak, a