Tuesday, December 21, 2004


Okay, you've convinced me. (I'm easy to convince, clearly.) Here's more Russia travelogue for the masochists or insomniacs...

Up early. Found a water bottle had burst in my backpack, soaking all my underwear. Laid them out – 8 pairs – on the heater vent to dry. Wondered if the maid would think I had serious incontinence problems.

Took another walk around Red Square in the early a.m., took some more pictures, went back to the hotel and met our contact – a minister of our church living in Moscow. He had traveled about 40 minutes across town on the metro to meet us at our hotel and take us back with him. None of the stops we passed were the really impressive Moscow Metro stations we’d seen and heard about, but I’d say they were still nicer than American subway stops I’ve seen.

I didn't see anyone give up their seat for the elderly or infirm, although there was enough rider turnover that the babushkas (grandmothers) usually got a seat fairly quickly as people stood to exit. Deodorant was evidently an optional item, but lest I sound too self-righteous about my cleanliness let me say that most people seemed to have more or less the same standards we did in this area. There were a few notable exceptions, but I imagine that’s true in any big city. The European nylons-over-hairy-legs thing was in effect, tho -- mostly with the middle-aged and older women.

At the end of the metro line, we got on a free bus that took us out to a special gated complex of townhouses where foreigners and very rich Russians lived. It was the week leading up to Orthodox Easter, and the roads on the way were absolutely jammed with cars as people headed out to the cemeteries in what is apparently an annual Easter ritual. Would have taken us forever, but the Militia waved us into a special bus lane, and we made decent time.

Had in informal Sunday morning service at the home of an American family who was living in Moscow, then lunch. (My father-in-law had promised me that every meal in Russia would include tomatoes and cucumbers; so far, he was right.) We spent the day with the family, met some young Russians Sunday afternoon. The complex was quite nice – houses were tiny, but it had a little western-style mini-mart, sports complex (tennis, basketball, weight machines, etc). Clean streets, manicured lawns, and security guards. Looked a lot like military housing in the USA, actually. By Moscow standards, it is high living – only the richest can afford it – I heard it was something like $9000/month to live there, but that seems outlandishly high to me, considering the strength of the dollar there.

There was a little girl about 9 yrs old in front of me in line at the mini-mart buying a couple of packs of Camels – hopefully they were for her dad, but I wouldn’t necessarily bet on it. I got some cookies and other cool Russian 7-11 type fare.

Jet lag hit pretty hard in the middle of the afternoon– full stomach, warm house, gentle voices – we made it through, but barely.

One of the young men we met had his own car, and gave us a ride back to the metro station. Our minister friend generously offered to guide us to the airport the next day, so we arranged to meet him at his apartment for lunch. He walked us to the metro station and offered to ride with us back to the hotel, but we managed fine without handholding.

On the way back we did a little souvenir shopping in the shops/stalls along the metro tunnels. I did my best to translate Sis’s (and my own) requests to view various items, but took a fair bit longer than necessary trying to find exactly the right words. They say that Russian grammar isn’t necessarily difficult – it’s just that there’s just so MUCH of it. :-) Whatever that means. I think it means it’s difficult.

My hesitation frustrated Sis, who (quite rightly) felt I was being absurd – what was this, a Russian language exam? Point and grunt, for pete’s sake! As I hemmed and hawed and muttered to myself, trying to put together the proper parts of speech, a couple of Russian women stepped in front of us, so we ended up waiting for an extra 15 minutes because I was too proud to speak pidgin Russian. Sis took this with good grace, but let me know it would be all right with her if we didn’t wait until we had our translations letter-perfect from then on. (The woman at one stall spoke German, but that didn’t help us much – my German doesn’t go very far beyond “Good day”, “Goodbye”, and “I am a jelly doughnut.”)

We stopped at a bakery stall to buy some Russian pastries, but were thwarted by the complete lack of anxiety about customer service we sometimes (okay, often) found: the girl running the stall was standing 10 feet away chatting with another vendor. When we glanced at her, she appraised us coolly and expressionlessly over the smoke of her cigarette, and went back to her conversation. I noticed that many vendors were just as motivated and friendly as their North American counterparts would be, but many others made it plain that they didn’t give a rat’s hiney whether we ever bought anything from them or not, and furthermore were annoyed that we had interrupted the reading/talking/smoking/musing they had been engaged in when we walked up.

One exchange between a well-dressed couple and a taxi driver illustrated the customer-is-seldom-right concept: the man (who sounded native Russian to me) asked the price to a certain area, and when given the answer, snorted in disbelief and repeated the amount (paraphrased: “Seven dollars to Arbat Street?!”) The driver, who was watching a chess game being played on the trunk of his cab, gave him the finger and said something that sounded like Russian for “Ride this, chump.”

At the hotel we changed clothes and retrieved our passports, then headed out for a walk around town.
Went by the Kremlin, found that it wasn’t open (to tourists) at that time. The sign listing the days/hours of operation appeared to say that it wouldn’t be open tomorrow either, but a nice guard told us to come back the next day. We did watch the changing of the guard – formerly done front of Lenin’s tomb, now done in front of the Tomb of the Unkowns. I was struck with how young the soldiers were -- they looked about 18 or maybe 20, max. Not sure if it would have been the same when Dad was here in the 1960’s, but it made me feel old anyway.

Found our way to Arbat Street, which is full of souvenir stalls, food vendors, street performers, etc. We ate some kind of meat and onions enclosed in some kind of bread – there were a dozen different meat-inside-bread type things and they all seemed remarkably similar but with different names.

Met a Russian vendor (we named him Tolya) from whom Sis bought a super-matryoshka doll (starts out only about 2” high, and has 10 pieces inside). Bought some souvenirs for the folks back home, and had a coke in a smoky western-style diner called Route 66 so that Sis could use the WC. Our waitress took our order with considerably more than the usual disdain, but we still tipped her – couldn’t seem to help it.

People-watched for a while. A threesome next to us seemed to be a father and grown son, and the son’s girlfriend. The father danced with the girlfriend for a while, but when he tried to kiss her she decided the dance was over. We finished our ice-cream-and-second-hand-smoke and went back out to the street.

Found a Soviet pilot’s G-suit and helmet for sale. A pretty young woman with a missing bicuspid was recruited to negotiate with us in English. She eventually came down from $130 to $70, but it just seemed like too much money, so we left. After a few minutes we decided it was too cool a present to pass up, so we went back and got it for my son back home.

Watched the street performers (musicians, singers, dancers, young men teaching each other to do Michael Jackson moves) and bought some flowers from a boy about 12 years old who had one leg amputated just below the hip. Or rather, we gave him some money, but he didn’t give us any flowers. Maybe he was just holding them, not selling them, I don’t know.

There was a huge crowd gathered around a couple performers, who were apparently hysterically funny, but my Russian wasn’t up to understanding the jokes, so it wasn’t very funny to us. Since the crowd was too thick to see what they were actually doing, and since we didn’t understand what they were saying, we felt we would move on at that point.

Eventually we found a taxi and rode back to Red Square. In a momentary lapse of concentration, I tried to pay the driver 20 rubles (about 70 cents) instead of the 200 rubles we had agreed on. I could see his consternation as he contemplated a big argument with me about it, but I dredged up enough money to square with him, and an international incident was averted.

Walked through Red Square one more time – saw my gypsy girlfriend again, but got away undetected – then through the under-street tunnel to the Rossiia and back to bed.


At Tue Dec 21, 08:15:00 PM PST, Blogger No_Newz said...

Wet underoos, hairy legged ladies, 9 year old smoker, accidentally ripping off a cabbie and a doll inside a doll inside a doll... Another great entry! I felt like I was with you guys on your adventure!
Lois Lane

At Wed Dec 22, 03:04:00 PM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a jelly doughnut!! :)

I can't believe your Russian is so bad, mine is top-notch. Actually, all I know how to say how they pronounce the Snickers candy bar. "Sneekairs!!", with a very slight rolling 'r' sounds. That never fails to amuse me. Yes, my standards are low. -Kire

At Wed Dec 22, 05:14:00 PM PST, Blogger anya ransuns aka Roxy said...

Yeah, I felt like I was right there with you when you described that. Oh yeah, I was right there. Heh. Have I told you you're just like a brother to me?

At Sat Dec 25, 12:05:00 PM PST, Blogger unca said...

I recently saw a clip of people moving through the Tomb of the Unknowns on TV. It was very moving but a bit surprised that (according to the documentary) they play Schuman's Traumerei over the speakers all day. With all of the Slavic composers to choose from, why would they decide on Robert Schuman? I thought it was kind of curious.

At Thu Jan 13, 11:33:00 PM PST, Blogger mamacita said...

I enjoyed this little vignette very much. Well done, Bryan!


Post a Comment

<< Home