Saturday, December 18, 2004


Flight was a looong 10 and a half hrs. Back was sore. Sis and I slept on each other’s laps. To be honest, mostly I slept on her lap, for which reason she wins the Best Sister award. (Yeah, she’s my only sister, but still.)

Set down in Moscow about 7pm local time. Was an excellent landing for large equipment like that (Boeing 777); the passengers gave the pilot a round of applause.

Long line at Passport Control. Passport Control (ie, Immigration) is separate from Customs, as it is in most places I think. As Dad had mentioned, waiting your turn was a low-reward course of action here. You pretty much had to just push forward rudely whenever you saw an opening, or you ended up staying there all night.

Eventually we reached the front of the Passport Control line. Somehow I had left a 20-dollar bill in my passport, which the Passport Control Lady handed back to me with a smile*. It was an accident, but I still felt stupid -- I’m sure she thought I was trying to bribe her for some reason. At least she didn’t get insulted and give us problems.

After passport control, we retrieved our baggage, and chose the Green Line (nothing to declare). In two minutes we were out of Customs and there was a woman with a sign (in English!) waiting to take us to our hotel. The woman’s name was Ira (Irina); her daughter was the one who worked for the taxi company, but she was taking exams, so Ira was filling in for her. Apparently with some jobs if you can’t make it in, you can just send someone else. She was about 40, divorced or widowed, and was very nice and seemed kind of sad.

Our taxi was a minivan driven by Salty The Sailor. It had no seatbelts of any kind as far as I could see, but they turned out not to be needed. In fact, we didn’t wear seatbelts at all the entire trip, and it turned out just fine despite repeated attempts by our drivers to cause multiple-car accidents and/or to kill pedestrians.

Irina got us settled in the hotel, and wouldn’t accept any tip. Wasn’t sure if I should have insisted or what. The hotel kept our passports, which made me nervous until I remembered that we were required to register with the local Militia, and the hotel needed the passports to do it for us (I guess this is a common service that the hotels provide, and that holding passports is common also in other parts of Europe. Not being a world traveler, I just felt a little anxious handing my precious passport to a perfect stranger…)

Needed to make a phone call to arrange a meeting the next morning, but
a) using the phone required a deposit
b) the deposit had to be in rubles
c) I only had dollars
d) banks and hotel cashier were closed.
There were always three or four security guys in gray suits in the lobby, checking ID and hotel cards/keys. My Russian was adequate to negotiate buying rubles from one of them, but I had absolutely no idea what the exchange rate was supposed to be. That would have been something to check before we left, wouldn’t it? Finally I just asked Beefy Security Man #1 for $100 worth. My Stupid Tourist surcharge turned out to be just under 7% (I checked the next day), which wasn’t bad for cash you buy illegally out of a guy’s coat pocket at 11pm in a little hallway of a strange hotel. He could have charged me 700% and I wouldn’t have known the difference until the morning.

We figured out how to use the phone, and made arrangements to meet our contact in the morning.

Our room overlooked Red Square – we could see the Kremlin and the back of St Basil’s cathedral, as well as the Moscow River and a large part of the city. We couldn’t wait till morning to see it, so we changed clothes and walked out around Red Square for an hour or so, saw Lenin's Tomb, etc.

Standing there in Red Square was very moving. Familiarity with and interest in things Russian has always felt like a defining characteristic of our family – since we could remember, we were fascinated with Dad’s slides and his accounts of trips to a dark and mysterious place. Onion domes, fur hats, the Moscow River – and especially St. Basil’s, the Kremlin, Lenin’s Tomb, etc – bring back memories from earliest childhood. To actually stand in the place that had always been so mysterious and exotic had a much stronger emotional impact than I expected. I found myself staring at everything, enjoying everything.

We bought souvenirs from some vendors in Red Square who were deaf. Russian Sign Language is not the same as ASL, but they recognized our signs for “deaf,” “thank you,” etc.

A 300-yr-old Gypsy woman buttonholed us and began a long vodka-flavored disposition on many subjects, primarily centering on how I needed to give her some money. I gave her a dollar, but she said the bill was too old, and the bank would not change it for her. She was probably right – the banks and vendors were very touchy about our dollars. If they were wrinkled or old or had a corner missing, they were not accepted -- so I gave her 100 rubles (about $3). I noticed she didn’t give the dollar back, though. She did continue to expound, however, gesturing at the Kremlin and saying that the government was now run by the mafia and fascists and terrorists, and telling me that Putin wasn’t even a Russian. He was something else, but I didn’t understand the word, so I guess it will forever remain a mystery.

Eventually she wandered off back toward Red Square; we walked around a bit more, but the streets were starting to empty out, and we thought it best to head back. Asked a Militiaman for directions. He told us where to go without a hint of friendliness, but politely all the same – for a Russian, he was positively effusive. He had a Kalashnikov but he didn’t shoot us with it, which was also nice. Back to the hotel and went to sleep.

*A smile from a Russian (strangers, that is) is a rare occurrence. If you smile at them on the street, they assume their fly is open, or they have food on their shirt, or something – why else would someone smile at a perfect stranger, except to laugh at them?
When you KNOW them, Russians are generous and kind – but there’s a big difference between how one acts with friends (warm, affectionate), and how one acts with strangers (closed, unhelpful, brusque).


At Mon Dec 20, 09:56:00 AM PST, Blogger anya ransuns aka Roxy said...

Good stuff! Wow, your sister sounds like a truly excellent person. Unparalleled, really.;) You forgot to say that the windows of the room on the millionth floor were completely and totally openable such that you could have easily plunged to your death if you were suicidal or had tripped over a shoe. I wonder if this has something to do with how much money you wouldn't get if you accidentally fell out.

At Mon Dec 20, 03:19:00 PM PST, Blogger No_Newz said...

You know, when I read this over the weekend, I thought, man that guy is lucky! What a very cool sister indeed!
Lois Lane


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