Friday, December 24, 2004


Up early to get ready for checkout. Got all our bags packed, then headed out for a walk and breakfast. We did our best to find something Russian to eat, but (embarrassing, yes) we ended up at McDonalds where we got a Big Mac and a McChicken Sandwich. We were served by a pretty but surly young girl who obviously felt we were taking up valuable air she had been intending to breathe herself.

As we were walking, a scruffy, tough-looking young man began following us for several blocks and around a couple of turns. Eventually in an under-street tunnel we came to a fork – we walked toward the right tunnel, then switched to the left. I stopped and turned around and looked directly at him – not sure what I thought I was going to do if he had been a really bad sort, but at least I wanted him to know we knew he was following, and to force him to be very open and obvious about it if he was going to continue. He stopped, kind of shrugged, and wandered off to the right.

We walked around for a while looking for the famed Lubyanka prison. It was on the map, but we couldn’t find it – we got to thinking maybe it was an entirely different Lubyanka. We found where it *ought* to be, and took a picture of the building, but when I asked a man nearby what it was, he said it was the Agriculture Ministry or something, and professed to know nothing about any Lubyanka prison. When we got back home I looked it up, and it was definitely the right building. Not sure if he was ignorant, or just reinventing history.

Got one of the plastic carryall bags everyone seems to carry there. They are woven plastic (in plaid patterns), lightweight and very strong. They come in various sizes, must cost next to nothing to make and ship, and are tremendously useful -- a perfect example of the right product finding its market. We were very taken with them. One American friend in Ukraine calls them “Ukranian Samsonite.” Anyway, one of the street vendors gave us one, and wouldn’t take any money for it. I’d like to think he gave it to us because I asked “Where can I buy a bag like that?” in flawless Russian (;-), but I suspect it’s really because I had my good-looking sister with me. Oh well.

Went looking for GUM, the famous state department store. I asked a taxi driver to take us there, but he said “It’s just down that way, you can walk.” This was considerate of him, but my other experiences tell me he wasn’t just offering me information -- he didn’t think I should take a cab to GUM, and he probably wouldn’t have taken us even if I had insisted I wanted to ride. It’s not all that uncommon for a clerk in a store to refuse to sell you an item if in their opinion the item isn’t good enough, or you don’t need it. Sometimes you can wave the money at them all you want, they’ll just shake their heads and insist you don’t want the product.

Walked some more, past some of the most pathetic old beggars you ever saw – old men with amputated feet and no teeth; they appeared to be eating or about to eat something that looked like a raw dead pigeon, but I’m not sure. All I know is it (or they) had a revolting and very strong aroma. We gave them a little money, at Sis’s insistence as I recall.

Eventually we found GUM, which is no longer a big department store but a collection of high-priced little shops. We bought more rubles there from a bank teller who personally sniffed, tasted, and fondled each $20 bill I gave her, then held it under a special light of some kind to make sure it wasn’t fake. Eventually, she shoved some rubles at us with only a mild sneer and we went off in search of bargains. We didn’t find any, but Sis got some good pics of the famous store.

We only had an hour or so left, and we still hadn’t seen the inside of the Kremlin, so we hurried across Red Square and found one of the guides who hang about outside offering individual tours. Our guide’s name was Andrew; his English (3rd language for him, after Russian and Italian) was excellent – accented, but very fluent. The gate into the Kremlin gardens was blocked by a team of men doing asphalt repair -- we feared a half-mile walk around to the other entrance, but Andrew led us right through the middle of the construction site, stepping over safety cones, hot tar, piles of gravel, etc. A number of other people were doing the same, and we realized that’s just how it’s done – the entire country is an OSHA inspector’s nightmare. Sis said she half expected one of the men to hand her his shovel so she could take over while he had a smoke break.

Side note: Russian trucks are very utilitarian – most would say ugly – but by the end of our second day there, I had fallen in love with them. They are completely without frills – a perfect illustration of “form follows function.” After looking at Russian dumptrucks for a few days, our super-fancy trucks – waxed finish, molded side-panels and fenders, chrome bumpers, etc – seemed overdone, a wasteful extravagance, like sugar on cotton candy. [RUSSIAN TRUCK]

We enjoyed the Kremlin tour a lot – saw the famous cannon, and huge bell with the piece broken out of the bottom. “The world’s largest cannon, the world’s largest bell, the world’s largest government – and none of them work…” Saw captured French cannon as well – the war with Napoleon still looms large for the Russians, as does WW2. Saw the various churches built by different Tsars, what looked to be millions of dollars worth of gold, icons, ornamentation. Andrew gave us an amazing amount of history, most of which I was completely unable to retain.

After our Kremlin tour, we hurried back to the hotel and met Lorne, who helped us schlep our bags to the metro station. We had lunch at his apt, then flagged down a car on the road – huge numbers of private cars are unofficial taxis – and negotiated a ride to the airport. Lorne rode all the way to the airport with us, and even went inside to make sure everything went okay.

Had a bit of hassle with the violin – turns out we should have declared it when we got into the country – but eventually they let us through and on our way to Ukraine. There was a noticeable lack of instructions for travelers – you kind of had to know what you were doing or figure it out. Lorne stayed outside the ticket area until he saw us finally ushered through, then waved goodbye – it was nice to see his friendly face as our last glimpse of Moscow.

Our plane was a smallish Tupolev – seated about 50, I think – it was very nice, and the service was again very good.

When we landed in Kiev, we began the immigration rigamarole again – again, not much in the way of instructions. We filled out some forms, waited in line, were told to fill out some other forms, waited again, got through. Watched a young Russian-speaking African man get hassled – apparently something was not in order with his papers. From the way he acted (obviously frustrated, but at the same time resigned, calm, professional, and apparently experienced), we were inclined to put it down to racism on the part of the immigration official he was dealing with rather than a mistake on his part. Maybe that’s a slander on the Ukrainian official, but I haven’t found Eastern Europeans to be the most ardent champions of civil rights for all races. Anyway, we were finally ushered into another room to pick up our luggage, which all made it through on the first try. Certainly can’t say that about all the flights I’ve been on in the U.S.A.

Eventually we faced a row of stern-faced customs officials – Sis seemed to make it through without too much trouble. Once again, my violin was a bone of contention. I has been bought at a garage sale in the States, but my official – let’s call her Galina, since that’s what 99% of Ukrainian women are named – wouldn’t believe it had only cost $40. I did not attempt to explain “Garage Sale”. It didn’t help that she spoke to me exclusively in Ukrainian in spite of the fact that I obviously spoke only English and a little Russian.
[Note: Ukrainians seemed to find it difficult to imagine that a person who speaks Russian would be unable to speak any Ukrainian. The languages *are* quite similar, but when you’re just barely holding on in Russian – missing a lot of words, relying heavily on context, etc – that little extra difference when they shift to Ukrainian defeated me every time.]
She called her boss over, who also expressed his doubts about the violin’s purchase price – he gave me a little smile that said “Come on, now – you know you’re lying.” Galina also wanted to know about the medicines I was bringing for Mom & Dad – ignoring the really expensive prescription stuff, she concentrated on the Metamucil, perhaps because it was a powder, who knows. Periodically she’d come back to the violin issue, but when I wouldn’t change my story (and was too thick to realize what she probably wanted was $20) she eventually told me to get my stuff off the table and get out of there. Which I did.

Mom & Dad were there to greet us, along with some other American friends of theirs who live in Kiev. We took a mini-van back to their apartment, then went to the market and McDonalds for supper (at home, I never eat at Mickey D’s – I go to Eastern Europe, and eat there twice in one day! :-). Sat next to some folks in McDonalds who were speaking fluent Spanish – as I recall, Mom was compelled to talk to them, which they seemed happy about.

That evening, we caught the train to the town where my parents live. Each car of the train has a middle-aged “train lady” who’s in charge of the passengers in her car. I had the impression that what she said, goes – I know I didn’t feel like messing with her. She took our tickets, brought us tea and bedding, barged in a few times without knocking to check if we were all right or to tell us our stop was coming up. One time I had been wearing nothing not 30 seconds before – maybe that’s not a big deal to the Ukrainians, or maybe it was just her, I don’t know.

It’s a 12-hr ride to Lutsk, but I found the rocking of the train very relaxing, and slept well all the way.


At Sat Dec 25, 06:16:00 AM PST, Blogger No_Newz said...

Another great installment and again, I felt like I was with you guys. Very cool rustic truck! Maybe that's just one of the reasons they say Americans are wasteful and spoiled. Russia is probably a no hemi zone. Either that or all of those knowledgeable clerks have been able to talk people out of buying them.
Will you or your Sis have a photo blog of the trip? I think that would be cool.
Lois Lane
P.S. Merry Christmas!

At Mon Dec 27, 08:52:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good readin', good readin'. -K


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