the first bad day

I thought it would happen at some point: an everything-is-going-wrong day. Perhaps I would miss my train, fall over in a puddle, lose my credit card. Maybe worse: I had imagined the possibility of having my passport stolen or my computer crash. But for seven months, things had gone pretty smoothly.

It truly wasn’t Russia’s fault, but as soon as I landed in Moscow things started to go wrong. I had carefully planned the bones of my trip, read extensively about what to expect, learned the Cyrillic alphabet and a few words, and triple-checked I had all my documents in order.

I made my way to my Airbnb apartment from the airport without drama. It had been a well-executed travel day, and I was greeted warmly by my host, Elina. Trim and tanned and energetic, she explained where everything was in heavily-accented English and offered me some meat patties and a pickle for dinner. My first taste of Russian hospitality.

I put my bags down and started to unpack but the lock on the main compartment of my backpack wouldn’t open. I tried again and again, variations on a theme, but it was jammed. Curse you! I thought, and wished I had splashed out on the £10 locks instead of the £5 ones. I unpacked through the small pocket at the base of the bag and went to bed.

Morning came and the lock was still jammed. I decided there was nothing I could do without a pair of bolt cutters. Step two: set up my phone. I’d purchased a global data SIM in the UK so that I wouldn’t need to buy separate SIMs in Russia, Korea and Japan, a simple solution to potential obstacles.

I put the SIM in, followed the instructions and waited. Nothing. Turned the phone off and on. Repeated the steps. Still nothing. I called the helpline, gratefully noting it was open 24/7. They got me to change a few settings, but still I came up empty-handed. After a couple of hours and three phone calls we were running out of options and I was working hard to be patient.

Meanwhile, Moscow was out there being great, so I slipped on my Birkenstocks and went out to see what was going on.

Gorky Park was just across the river from the apartment. It was unseasonably warm and sunny that weekend, and every man and his dog were out, soaking up the rays. Gorky Park is a beautiful part of Moscow. Huge stones gates engraved with ‘1955’ under a hammer and sickle loom above wide steps leading down to an enormous fountain. People were rollerblading and cycling and skateboarding. Families were picnicking. Couples were paddle-boating on the pond. A bride and groom emerged from a rose garden, her gown flouncy, her arms in fingerless lace gloves. Huge cushions and deckchairs were strewn on the grass as casually as their occupants. The volleyball courts were full of shirtless men, and the ice-cream stalls were doing a busy trade. I strolled and watched and came back around to the main fountain. Strains of symphonic music had been drifting towards me as I approached and as I rounded the bend I saw the fountain dancing in time with the music. We all crowded round the edge, enjoying the show.

I left Gorky Park through the underpass where people sold kitschy paintings of snowy landscapes and soft-focus celebrity portraits. The Culture Park on the other side was quiet and pretty and full of statues, most of them former leaders frozen in time. Busts of Mikhailovich and Stalin and Gorbachov and Lenin. So many sculptures of Lenin. At one point I counted six Lenins in my line of sight, his calm stare looking towards the future. I stood among these stone men and thought about how they have been consigned to history, removed from their proud positions in city squares and displayed like artefacts in a museum.

I set out again, walking along the Moscow River then looping back to the apartment. It was 5 o’clock and my phone still wasn’t working. I called the helpline and they suggest more drastic measures. A factory reset? No, I said, I don’t want to lose my apps and settings. OK, we could just erase the user data, they said, and I agreed.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I should have asked specifically what it would erase. I should have taken a moment to consider. They should have said, you’ve backed up your photos and messages right? But by this point I had spent half the day on this problem and was losing hope. And I was so focused on getting an internet connection that I heard “data” and thought of Google.

Two hours later, after exhausting every option, I was heading out to watch a light show on the river and casually opened my photo gallery.

No photos.

Suddenly I remembered what “user data” actually means. It means stuff created by me. It means seven months of photos of the biggest trip of my life – gone.

Needless to say, I was distraught. I hadn’t cried since Ian left in June, but now I lost it. It felt almost like my memories were gone. Of course, I still had my actual memories, I comforted myself, but it didn’t help.

Right, I thought after a moment. If you stay in your room you’ll feel worse. So I put on my leather jacket, checked my eyeliner hadn’t smudged, and went outside.

On the street, Russians were pouring onto the bridge. I had never seen so many people on the streets of a city in my life. I walked, just for something to do, and it helped. The cool air, the relaxed mood of the crowds, they distracted me. As I was crossing the bridge fireworks shot into the air and as they sparked and spun, as people stopped to watch and cheer, even the policemen lining the road, I felt a moment of joy. I realised that I was in Russia – Russia! – and there were new memories to make, new photos to take, so much to look forward to.

But it hurt. The next morning I was still quite upset. I set up my computer to Skype with Ian and then my parents, and discovered that my camera wasn’t connecting. I gritted my teeth and tried to laugh. I wonder how many more things can go wrong before I become hysterical?

Face-to-face with Ian via my phone I had a moment of hindsight again: when your boyfriend is a software engineer it’s probably a good idea to keep him in the loop while doing software stuff to your phone. He spent parts of that day and the next looking for ways to recover the photos. It got pretty technical and I was quickly out of my depth. He supervised over Viber but eventually we hit a wall. I had to give up.

In the meantime, I had found a backup I had done four months earlier. It was the first three months, all my England photos, and it was a big gain. I started to gather from other places. The odd folder on my computer. Ian’s photos from Europe. The images I’d posted online. Some random pics sent over Viber. I managed to pull together maybe half of what I’d had, and it all helped.

But it surprised me how deeply upset I was. I could have happily lost some of the snappier stuff, but there were a couple of really good shots in there and many that just symbolised good memories. In an ironic twist, I had carefully backed up documents on my computer before departing for Moscow, and with further irony I had set up an automatic photo backup to Dropbox after rebooting my phone, before realising the damage. It was frustrating to think if only… so I kept remembering that I was in Russia (Russia!) and then I couldn’t be sad for long.

On Tuesday, after they’d been working on it for four days, I gave in and bought a local SIM card. Ten minutes later I was connected. Oh wonder of wonders! My bag lock was still jammed and my webcam still didn’t work and half my photos were still gone, but I had data of the internet kind and that was enough for now.

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