(Don’t) Throw Mama from the Train

Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace was magnificent! Despite the gilt everywhere, it was in fact rather more restrained than the Hermitage/Winter Palace. Summer over- the-top as compared to winter-over-the-top, if that makes sense.

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Initially we did get off at the wrong metro station – but in our defense, the name of that station and the name of the one we needed were very similar. When we couldn’t find the landmark statue of Lenin that was supposed to indicate our bus stop, we asked a nice lady…who naturally didn’t speak a word of English (very few people do) and to boot, was incredibly confused about why we were asking about a statue that clearly didn’t exist where we were standing. When we said Pushkin (name of the town), she attempted directions…in rapid and long winded Russian. Even though it was clear we understood not one word, we finally had to stop her or I feared she might never stop talking! We shortly figured out we couldn’t find the statue as we were at entirely the wrong station. Problem solved, back on the metro.

And then, like a beacon of light, I spotted another woman carrying a guidebook. As we got off the metro at our correct stop, I stalked her to see what language her guidebook was in….English! Lonely Planet! Turns out she got great instructions on negotiating the metro and the mini bus system that would ultimately get all four of us to the Summer Palace. So we latched on to her and her husband.
Incredibly, the mini bus that would take us the 40 minutes to the town of Pushkin cost 39 Rubles, or just over $1! The “guided tours” I found on the internet run into the hundreds of dollars.

I’m learning though that if you can sound out the word, you can say it. There may be 33 letters in the Cyrillic alphabet, but once you get the sounds down, there are no linguistic tricks. No silent letter q or anything.

The Summer Palace was gorgeous, full of light and mirrors and the requisite gold, and I’m sure in the summer the grounds are magnificent. Owing that is was neither the blooming season nor snow covered romantic vista time, and that it was chilly (although I think rather unseasonably warm for this time of year in this part of the country) we didn’t wander through.

The Summer Palace
The Summer Palace, in winter

Getting home was equally interesting. We took a different numbered mini bus and it seemed to arrive at the metro station in much shorter order than the outgoing one. Not being ones to fuss, we got off. Turns out we ended up at a totally different metro, but one that was on the metro line we needed. Providence looking out for us once again.

Last night we made our way from St. Petersburg to Moscow via the Red Arrow overnight train. The Red Arrow was originally the train that ferried the Russian court and nobles to and from their summer dachas. Today it’s one of the fancier trains, resplendent with plush red curtains, red carpeting and a stirring musical interlude that plays as the train departs and enters the station.

Overnight train car. Holds four.
Overnight train car. Holds four.

I’ve never been in a train compartment before, let alone slept in one overnight. It was actually quite pleasant to be lulled to sleep – especially lying down, rather than slumping on the window drooling, which is the only other way I’ve ever slept on a train!

When we arrived at our 4 person (all female) berth, there was already a woman snuggled into the top bunk. How to actually unfold the bed, and where the bedding was stored, was not immediately apparent to me, and although she tried to explain, her Russian and my English didn’t meet in the middle. Turns out, the bed was neatly tucked behind the seat and pulling the back of the seat forward revealed a perfectly made bed. Brilliant!

The train departed at almost midnight from St. P and one hour before our 7:55 am arrival an announcement was made and soft lighting turned on and breakfast appeared. Same boxed food as the last train, pate included. Mmmmmm, breakfast liver….

For some reason Mother and I had to pay for our tea and coffee, but the other 2 women in the berth, both of whom had tea, did not. In many instances I’ve found there is posted pricing for Russians  and a different posted price for Others. The price for others is essentially subsidizing the cost of the admission or whatever for the Russians. To add a little insult to injury, my coffee was THREE TIMES the price of Mother’s tea!!! (99 Rubles for both).

And after a cab ride with a really surly cabbie who crashed his cab against the back end of a stationary van…that was exciting… and who wanted to let us out in the middle of a busy intersection because it was easier…we declined (and a policeman yelled at him) …we’re back in Moscow at the Hotel Vega. Home sweet home in Russia! We’re on a renovated floor this time. Complimentary fluffy robes.

To top off our Russian adventure, we’re taking an evening cruise down the Moscow River to see the city lit up from the water. They do know how to illuminate buildings to their best effect in this country.

Moscow at night, from the Moscow River
Moscow at night, from the Moscow River

Fingers crossed that our Aeroflot plane will be of a slightly newer vintage on the way back…or that the movie will be something other than The Wedding Singer, although the selection of movies you can still find on a VHS tape is, admittedly, limited…

We’ve had a wonderful time in Russia. It was definitely a culture shock….but I think we’ve managed very well. And so das vi danya, Mother Russia. Thanks for the memories.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it…but only in designated sections…

Poor Mother. She’s finally arrived in Russia, a country where everyone smokes all the time and everywhere….except that’s no longer the case.

One short month ago, the smoking rules changed, and now Russia is much more in line with places like France. It hasn’t stopped people from smoking, it’s just pushed them outside like everywhere else. Okay not quite, there’s a smoking area inside the M-Hotel, but the rooms are smoke free.

She waited her whole life to arrive at her Mecca, and missed it by 30 days.

Today we woke up to torrential downpours. Change of plans, instead of making our way out to Pushkin, we would do the Hermitage today and save Pushkin for tomorrow.

It truly is the Louvre of Russia, with a collection of about 3 million pieces assembled over 250 years. It has so many treasures that apparently it would take 5 days to see them all. We restricted ourselves to just 2 areas — the Palace interiors and the additional guided exhibit, The Diamond Room. And still we were at the museum for 4 hours.

The Hermitage is probably the most famous building in St. Petersburg. The best way to approach the Hermitage is through the Triumphal Arch from Nevsky Prospect (the main road in the city), through the Place Square and into the Winter Palace, which is the main building of the Hermitage (there are 7 in all). The museum was founded by Catherine the Great with a large purchase of European artworks and has been further amassed ever since.

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An absolute awe-inspiring highlight of the Hermitage is ascending the Jordan Staircase, two wide flights of marble stairs bedazzled with gold, statues, chandeliers and columns…these Russian Tsars like their gilding, by god! Opulent only begins to describe it.

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Room after over the top room follows, filled with so many treasures and masterpieces that it finally becomes just overwhelming and you have to leave…or go to the café for a coke, which is what we did.

The Diamond Room pretty well makes up for missing the diamond fund at the Kremlin. Made up largely of Catherine the Great’s jewelry collection, personal ornamentations like snuff boxes and all manner of diplomatic gifts, it soon becomes apparent that she believed in the adage more is more! I’ve truly never seen so many diamond encrusted things…it’s a marvel that there are any precious stones left in the world.

I thought diamonds were quite rare, but apparently they are as common as sand on a beach. Like a magpie, girlfriend loved a sparkly object.

After a bracing cup of hot tea for Mother and a glass of beer for me in our hotel room, we ventured out for dinner. Tonight we ate at the little bistro on the corner. They didn’t speak English. We don’t speak Russian. Because of the preparation styles, the food isn’t always readily recognizable, but with some hand gestures and some sounds (apparently Russian chickens go cluck cluck too), we managed to get ourselves a fantastic dinner. Including a shot of vodka for me (when in Russia), we ate a very hearty and quite delicious dinner for less that $15 for the two of us. I kept checking my currency converter in astonishment.

When you eat like a local in a place where locals eat, you pay local prices, and encounter really nice and quite helpful people. When the two men at the adjacent table left, they bid us farewell with their best (and perhaps only) foreign language good bye…adios!

We agreed that dessert would be had at the brasserie that we passed last night. Mother secured a seat (it was incredibly busy, so we figured that bode well for the pastries), while I stood at the counter to order. A VERY old babushka came to stand next to me and started speaking in rapid Russian. Once again I used my very handy, I’m sorry, I don’t speak Russian… and her face turned a little. German? American? (This woman was old enough to remember what the Germans did to her city, so I’m glad I didn’t have to cop to that one). When I said no, Kanatskii… her face lit up and she started chatting away excitedly in Russian. So I think she was pleased…

We Canadians are so lucky. we truly have the world-wide passport of friendliness. I know we sometimes take umbrage at the international teasing we get about being so nice…but let me tell you, we should never take that for granted.

When she left, she gave me the biggest toothless grin.

And tomorrow, should we make it back from the Summer Palace without getting horribly lost and ending up in Finland, we shall return to the train station for our journey back to Moscow. This won’t be any old train ride…we’ve got sleeping bunks on the over night train….

A Day of Culture, or, How Mother Nearly Got Sent to the Gulag

This will be the day we remember as the day mother nearly got arrested at the museum….and not just any museum, the State Museum of the Political History of Russia. I know what you’re thinking…wow….now that sounds like fun…. Let’s just say we were the only non-Russians there…I know, shocking. This is not one of your “must see” museums in the guidebook…

It was rather more interesting than it sounds…no, really. The Administrator (the one who hands out the audio guides but isn’t the one you give your money to to rent the audio guides, but is the one who takes your passport as a guarantee you’ll give it back at the end), was thrilled that we seemed to like the museum.In truth, I did learn quite a lot about Russia’s endlessly oppressive history of being subject the whims of one terrible regime after another. These people have suffered for generations. This explains their rather grim countenance.

Continue reading “A Day of Culture, or, How Mother Nearly Got Sent to the Gulag”

St. Petersburg…it’s a two-scarf kinda town.

“St. Petersburg is a two scarf place,” she says. Our concierge at the hotel in Moscow speaks perfect Canadian English, having gone to school in Vancouver…”You mean it’s even colder there than here?” I stammer…
Apparently. And there’s more wind. Delightful.

Sartorial splendor is taking a semi-backseat to practicality. Without question I am wearing my big fur hat at all times (regardless of the terror of hat head…), my heavy pashmina bundled about my neck and over my chin, and instead of tights or nylons today with my skirt, today I wore workout tights. And polar fleece socks. Thank god everything I own is black. And that I don’t have to take off my shoes to say, enter a church.

Because the language barrier is so severe, we just aren’t able to interact with regular people at even the most basic level. And I’m finding it frustrating. While I’m seeing Moscow and St. Petersburg, I’m not really experiencing Russia in a way that I’ve been able to experience other countries. People are loathe to be approached when I’m asking for help – it’s unclear really when Russians want you to speak to them. And when I try to speak in Russian, I’m almost always met with blank stares…followed by something in rapid Russian without hand gestures. Then they walk away. Yes, young people do speak English better than older ones, but I think there’s a holdover from years of government oppression that means Russians don’t talk to strangers. Even other Russians. They don’t look each other in the eye, they don’t make pleasant, if benign faces at one another that say, without speaking…we’re sharing the same experience, isn’t it great/awful. And so I’m here, and I’m thrilled to be able to see some of the things I’ve only heard and read about, but for the first time in a long time of travelling, I am very much a tourist. And there’s nothing I can do to change that.

That’s why these blog posts feel so different from ones I’ve sent before. I’m not having the everyday interactions with Russians that end up allowing interesting stories, funny misunderstandings or unexpected adventures to emerge. I’m sure they are a lovely people when you get to know them, but I really don’t know how an outsider, and I’m very definitely outsider, makes that happen. I can see it possibly happening in a hostel if say a Russian was also travelling, but the insular nature of a hotel doesn’t lend itself to the same sort of personal interactions.

Nevertheless, we’re eagerly diving into the city. I’ve always made fun (quietly of course and never to their faces) of those people sitting on the downtown double-decker tour buses. But you know what, I’m one of those people now, and it turns out, they’re quite helpful. We’ve done it in Moscow and now in St. Petersburg on our first day in each city, and it provides a succinct lay of the land (along with helpful, if not sometimes peculiar, audio guide commentary). It also makes real for the city-newbie the true distance between one guidebook landmark and another.

So there. I’m sorry I ever made fun.

From the hop on hop off bus, I am mesmerized by this city. It’s a veritable confection of beautiful architecture. I honestly don’t know what to take photos of because a) there are so many things and b) I know when I look back at the photos, they just won’t do what I saw justice.

Everything here, and really in Moscow too, is on such a grand scale that to find something to focus on to take a photo of is nearly impossible.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, basically the spot from which St. Petersburg grew, one ups the Kremlin in a lot of ways. All the buildings that are open are fully open (and warm!) and the audio guide gives great descriptions of everything, since all the signs and printed matter is entirely in Russian. But the absolute best thing is that unlike the Kremlin, the Fortress actually has a café and a couple of vendors selling snacks on the grounds. I thought the lady selling ice cream bars and frozen ice pops didn’t really have a firm grip on her market, until on the way out I saw her selling 3 ice cream bars to a group of ladies…apparently I understand Russian commerce even less than I understand Cyrillic….

But actually, I must say that my Cyrillic deciphering is getting better by the day. Being lost or hungry or both at the same time is great incentive to figure out where you are what you’re about to put in your mouth. But then I tried writing it out…Turns out I have the Cyrillic penmanship of a recovering stroke victim.

Off for dinner, and our first real attempt at a Russian menu in a restaurant. We’ve been eating at fairly familiar and safe places until this moment – either from our grocery stash in our room, or places like Subway and McDonald’s. Even the Russian takeaway place Tepmok has a menu with pictures and English translations. But tonight, tonight we tempt fate and order… into the abyss!
Note: We had dinner at a lovely restaurant called Brasserie de Metropole…French sounding but definitely a Russian menu. Because I couldn’t resist and needed to know just what it was, for starters I had the “salted ugly milkcaps”. I kid you not. And borscht. Flavoured with pork. Ooops. That’s the first time I’ve had pork in 20 years. (BTW, the ugly salted milkcaps were brined mushrooms with onions, dill and this Russian sour cream that’s absolutely delicious!)

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Hat Head. Necessary evil.

The wind chill and the dampness here are bone chilling.
Russians are simply wearing head to toe fur in a concerted effort not to freeze to death. Clearly PETA has met its match here. And so I am likewise bundled in my (faux fur) hat, which leads me to wonder, what’s Russian for “hat head”, ‘cause I’ve got it. And why do I seem to be the only one suffering from it? I’d love to get my hands on the miracle hair product that allows other women to wear all manner of shapes and styles of hats, and remove them to reveal a perfect coif underneath. I, on the other hand, desperately run my fingers through my hair in a vain attempt to fluff up my fine locks and coax some volume. I’m thinking the medieval hotel hair dryer is not helping the issue.

This hairdryer is beyond useless.
This hairdryer is beyond useless.

The fear of hat head does explain the elaborate braids I’ve seen on some women Big, wide braids plaited down the backs of their heads, belying a thickness of strand and mane I can only dream of.

It’s generally rather more dark than I expected, but of course it’s the opposite of White Nights. By 10 am the streetlights finally turn out. And it’s rainy… and NOT SNOWING. No gentle dusting of powder to give everything a romantic glow. It’s not quite the Russia of my imagination…but the upside is no salt stains on my boots.

Today we traveled by train to St. Petersburg. There are 2 ways to get from the capital Moscow to its younger rival, St. Petersburg. You can take the arduous journey back to the airport and board a flight, or take a short taxi ride into the city centre and catch the train, a far and away more civilized way to travel. Depending on the train class you select, both can ways can be similarly priced.

But that’s where the similarities end.

We purchased 2nd class tickets on a high speed train that guaranteed we would arrive in St. Petersburg four hours later and on time. And we absolutely do. Like Mussolini and his obsession to ensure the Italian trains would run on time, so the Soviets have ensured on time arrivals. To. The. Minute.

Train travel is clearly the preferred way for Russians to travel between their largest cities, because the train is packed, and save for the Vietnamese couple beside us, we are the only non-Russians in the train car.

Our tickets include a boxed dinner (I did not partake of the pate provided, but I am bringing it home for the cats…they need a souvenir too…), sleep mask and ear plugs to wear while very comfortably reclining.

Train food
Train food

I close my eyes and imagine this is what air travel in the golden age must have been like… Moscow is a city that never sleeps, and like Las Vegas the lights never really go out. As we hurtle deeper into the countryside, it becomes very clear that outside the city limits is a very different Russia (and because we’re travelling both ways on the train at night, one we’ll never see!). This is the first time I’ve experienced what it is to be in the pitch dark outdoors. The darkness literally envelopes us and I’m certain our train cutting through the night is far and away the brightest dot on the landscape.
As we alight from the train, it becomes immediately apparent that although Moscow suffers from the architectural blight of Stalin and the Communists, they appear to have left frothy St. Petersburg largely untouched by brutalist architecture.

Pretty St. Petersburg
Pretty St. Petersburg

And that’s just what I can see in the dark. Then suddenly, without warning all the beauty and awe crash down around our feet. Because our hotel is only one metro stop followed by a 2 minute walk from the station, we elect to use the metro.
Major. Mistake.

There are stairs EVERYWHERE. Even though the extremely deep metro stations provide escalators to ground level (the one from our metro station to street level probably took about 3 minutes to travel the distance, and at a fairly severe pitch). And that’s helpful. But then we have to manipulate and manoeuvre and coax and struggle very heavy bags up and down countless stairs through overheated buildings to finally get out onto the street.

By the time we locate M-Hotel (down a side street, through an alley and into an interior courtyard of an old apartment block), we are done. The ease and joy of train travel a distant memory (and a case of hat head so severe as to not even bear thinking about again), we literally collapse in our tiniest of rooms, our home for the next 5 days.

Tiny but functional. Let the fight over closet space begin!
Tiny but functional. Let the fight over closet space begin!

Russian Shoppertunities

A little retail therapy goes a long way…

Today we explored the Ismaylovo Market, which is basically next door to our hotel. Good thing we know where it is, because the directions in mother’s guidebook instruct the intrepid traveler to “exit the metro and follow the crowds.” Wonderful advice if everyone is heading for the crafts and antique market, not so good if you just end up following someone home…

All manner of Russian souvenirs are available at the market — from nesting dolls and Christmas ornaments to fur hats and decommissioned Soviet ammunition, knives and other weaponry. (What are the appropriate boxes to check on that customs declaration form…?)

Which one to choose?
Which one to choose?

I was warned so many times by so many people to keep a close eye on my hand bag and beware of pickpockets. I figured for sure this place would be a hot bed of thievery. Except that I probably over paid for my trinkets (because I can’t haggle my way out of a wet paper bag), no one even came close to brushing up against me, let alone sliding their sticky fingers into my handbag. In fact, even the gypsies who beg (loudly and in Russian, so I can’t understand them anyway) on the subway have left me alone.

Next stop, Pushkin Square and the largest McDonald’s in Russia. 26 check out lines, serving 13,000 meals per day. I didn’t just want to eat there for the fancy linens and the ambiance… When the Iron Curtain was lifted, Canadian George Cohon came knocking on the door of the New Capitalist Russia and opened the very first McDonald’s in Russia…the one in Pushkin Square. I wanted to see exactly what he’d accomplished. It’s so large and so busy that it’s hard to describe. I took a photo of the line ups, but even that doesn’t do it justice. Food critic review: if I had closed my eyes, I could have been eating the same Big Mac anywhere in the world, which is the point, I suppose. The only difference the packaging. A the value meal doesn’t exist. My only real disappointment was that there wasn’t a McRussian item for sale…but maybe the McBorscht or whatever only comes out once a year…like the McRib or the McLobster.

McDonald's first Russian location, opened by Canadian George Cohon
McDonald’s first Russian location, opened by Canadian George Cohon

You know how they say you shouldn’t go grocery shopping hungry? Good thing we were fortified with McD’s when we entered the Yeliseyvsky Gastronom, a refurbished 19th century food emporium that is hands down the fanciest grocery store I’ve ever entered. There was a doorman. Galen Weston could stand to fancy things up a little at Loblaws.

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Have you ever seen such beautifully displayed ketchup?
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Too pretty to touch

There are expensive chocolates and premium vodka and black caviar so pricey it’s behind glass. I was hopeful, but unlike at Costco, they weren’t offering samples. How fancy is this place? The lighting is by chandelier, not overhead fluorescent. The ketchup is displayed in solid wood built ins…like in an impressive wood paneled library, but where there should be works of great literature, there is ketchup and mustard.

At the end of each day my last stop before I hit the hotel is the small grocery store across the street. It’s the equivalent of a mom and pop corner store you might find anywhere in the world. Only the Russian version has the lady behind the counter and the burly guy who is security. No security cameras here…I think Boris just “makes things right”. The young woman in the corner shop has come to expect me and my terrible Russian to show up. I’ve been purchasing Russian beer based solely on the label. Today’s beer cost 60 rubles… about $1.92 for a half litre. I may become an alcoholic just for the savings.

If patience is a virtue, then I’m becoming a saint

Some days when you’re travelling are absolutely perfect, everything falls into place, the experiences you have and the people you meet are memories that you’ll treasure for ages.

And some days nothing works the way you planned, and the outcome isn’t some wonderful unexpected adventure, but just a crappy disappointment where the whole system seems designed to test your patience, and your acceptance of another culture.

Guess which one was today?

It didn’t start off badly. We negotiated the subway system with ease, and made our way to Lenin’s Mausoleum, which unlike yesterday, was open. We missed the entrance, so we decided to hop over the low barrier – it’s free to get in after all.

I don’t know exactly what the woman yelled at us in Russian, but her meaning was very clear. “Go back and around and don’t think you’re above following the rules like everyone else!”
So we go properly inside, past 6 young men in full military outfits (no smiling!) to Lenin-under-glass. You aren’t allowed to stop walking and take a long look, which Mother tried unsuccessfully to ignore. You can slowly shuffle past in the dimly lit tomb, but you are most definitely not permitted to look closely…is it because it’s not actually Lenin anymore, but a wax replica? He is sort of the colour of a soy candle…Oh, and he’s short.

Guarding Lenin
Guarding Lenin

After admiring the corpse, we headed for the Kremlin entrance. As usual, my keen sense of direction had us walking around the Kremlin walls in the WRONG direction. And make no mistake, the Kremlin is BIG. Like 69.4 acres big. Cue the long walk.

At the entrance we stood in line to get tickets. We stood in line to enter. We stood in line to have our bags scanned…and finally we got inside…where our ticket was scanned at each of the museum-churches we entered within the Kremlin. Why? I mean, how would anyone sneak into the Kremlin, one of the most fortified structures in the city? The home of Vladimir Putin? Yeah, I’m sneaking in…and my first stop is to check out the frescos in a church before I get down to some real mischief!

Not sneaking into the Kremlin
Not sneaking into the Kremlin

The Kremlin, which is the seat of the Russian government, has been home to some of the world’s most famous and infamous leaders. Ivan the Great, Ivan the Terrible, Lenin, Stalin, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, all cast an indelible mark on Russian history from inside these walls.

It isn’t just one building, but a series of buildings within the stronghold. Towers, churches, an armory and, what I’m really here for, The Diamond Fund.

With the rather misleading name of the Armory, the building I’m most interested in was built as a weapons and arms storage area, but it has spent the better part of its existence as the a treasure trove of crown jewels, carriages, gold and silver pieces, and pricey gifts from heads of state. The famous Faberge Eggs are inside.

But one needs to stand in yet another line to buy a ticket to the Diamond Fund. And you can’t just buy a ticket for any old time, and you can’t walk through without a group (how would anyone go about pocketing a Faberge Egg or another treasure is beyond me…). So we miss the first tour time. The second tour time is 2:30. But you can’t buy tickets for that time until after the ticket sellers’ “technical break” – basically their lunch break. And that doesn’t end until 2:30…Kafka, I can hear you laughing.

Not having had anything to eat (there’s no café in the Kremlin), and knowing we are scheduled for our Metro stations tour at 4:00, we elect to forgo the diamond viewing to have a little lunch, and get warm.

We arrive for our metro tour at the indicated metro stop more than 15 minutes before the start time, as directed on my confirmation slip. And we wait. And we wait. And no one ever shows up. And it’s the last straw. There were two things I really wanted to see in Moscow – and in one day I’ve missed them both because of language barriers or inefficiency or cultural misunderstanding or I don’t know what. And for the moment, I’m seething at the city of Moscow and the Russians.

Back in the USSR

Red Square. It’s neither red, nor square. But nowhere conjures the image of Moscow, Russia’s absolutely vast capital, quite like it. Red Square is literally at the heart of Moscow – all roads lead toward it and the Kremlin – and around its four sides stand the Kremlin, the GUM Department Store, the State Historical museum and St. Basil’s Catherdral. Government, commerce, history and religion all cheek by jowel. The square is also home to Lenin’s Tomb, but sadly it’s closed for…cleaning? wax touch up? dusting? on Fridays. So we’ll have to shuffle by and stare at him tomorrow, before we spend the day exploring the Kremlin and the Diamond Fund. Must think about the appropriate accessories to wear to the Diamond Fund…what does one wear to view the crown jewels???

Red Square. Neither square, nor red.
Red Square. Neither square, nor red.

Today we braved the metro system. And let me tell you, it was a feat! Regardless of the time of day, the subway is PACKED. The good news is that a subway arrives every one to two minutes. The even better news is that a subway ride costs about $1. There are 11 lines crisscrossing, and one that actually circles, the city. The stations are located deep below the streets of Moscow – the escalators are long and very steep. (There is, however, only a nod to wheelchair accessibility…basically a ski track affair where you place the wheels into the metal track and I don’t know…let go??? Safety helmets not included.)

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Subway statuary
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Subway statuary

The bad news is that, despite what the guidebook purports, every single sign in the metro is written ONLY in Cyrillic. Which renders the lovely coloured map in my guidebook, written only in Latin letters, absolutely useless. Pretty, but totally ineffective. Thank god for my Moscow Metro phone app that has the station map in both Latin characters AND Cyrillic. Without that we would have been riding aimlessly up and down the blue line never to be seen again. As it is we haven’t yet mastered changing subway lines…that’s like advanced math that we’ll tackle tomorrow.

Looking at Cyrillic is like looking at the functions on a calculus calculator. You know they mean something, you just haven’t got the foggiest clue what to do about it…

Today though the thing that left the most lasting impression on me was not a building or a piece of art. It was a line. An endless line of humanity snaking around and through Revolution Square. And what were they waiting so patiently for? To get into a museum. Yes. For a cultural experience. They were waiting in line to see an exhibit on the Romanov Dynasty. Apparently about 13,000 people PER DAY have been visiting the exhibit, which has been, I’m sure to the absolute delight of the curator, held over by a week. In fact to accommodate the hordes of visitors, the museum is staying open until midnight! Today it was cold. It rained. Dark clouds persisted throughout the day. And yet, that line never got shorter. And no one pushed, complained or butted in line…they just patiently waited. (Of course waiting in lines has been part of the Russian psyche for generations….)

Speaking of waiting in line…the new Russia isn’t the Russia of even 20 years ago where blue jeans were a luxury purchased furtively on the black market. Oh no. The GUM Department Store, formerly Soviet Department Store No. 1 and the place Moscovites flocked to when there were shortages, is the most glamorous shopping arcade I’ve ever visited. It’s grand and gilded. And except for the cold weather and the abundance of fur for sale, I could have been shopping in Dubai. Hermes. Burberry. Valentino. Versace. A Bentley store…in the MALL!… No, there are not shortages, and no luxury that can’t be obtained in the new Moscow (provided of course you have the rubles to back it up).

GUM Department Store #1 preparing for Christmas
GUM Department Store #1 preparing for Christmas

The new Russia is absolutely a melting pot of the ancient and uber modern, of Soviet grey and capitalist shimmer. Too bad I can’t read any of the signs!

Planes, trains and automobiles…oh those Russians!

We have arrived, after 10 very long hours on the plane, in Russia. I’m amazed at how much the airport and the area outside the airport, looks like Pearson in Toronto.

Kindly put, the Aeroflot Boeing 767 that brought us to Moscow as vintage. But not good vintage..rather, the kind of vintage that shows up on the Salvation Army $1 per pound bin.

Seats that have literally seen more butts than the sidewalk outside an AA meeting. Not sure my flotation device/seat would have in any way, shape or form, allowed me to float in the icy Baltic Sea or even provided a modicum of cushioning on the way down.

The cutting edge entertainment? Not a back of the seat media centre but old style screens hung down the centre of the plane. Vintage viewing, The Wedding Singer (circa 1997) followed by a delightful Russian Three Stooges type thing (circa 1978).

I tried to sleep. No such luck.

The food and drink were good, though. If not a little…odd. Coleslaw with my breakfast waffles? A first for me.

But a nice guy with a sign met us at the airport and with only a few words exchanged in strained English and Russian, we followed him into the parking garage and loaded all our possessions into his Hyundai Solstice. Oh the traffic in Moscow! I’ve never experienced anything like it. It took over an hour to travel the 30 km to the Best Western Hotel Vega. And the driver said that wasn’t bad traffic at all.

By North American standards, our room is tiny. Mother has taken over almost every nook and cranny…but has generously left me two small cubbies for my clothes. The size of which pre-school children are allotted for their shoes and mittens.

Tired and hungry we ventured into a Russian market. Everything is behind the counter and everything requires a conversation with the shopkeeper. I think we did pretty well getting our breakfast for tomorrow — oj, milk, buns, yogurt. And all under $10.

Dinner at Subway…despite being in Cyrillic, the logo is eminently recognizable….what of course I failed to remember is that at Subway, you must pick out every single element of your sandwich…in Russian. Crap. Such good fortune that the Asian looking guy working there spoke fairly understandable English. Turns out Subway tastes like Subway, regardless of where you are in the world.

Such a good idea...until we had to order in Russian...
Such a good idea…until we had to order in Russian…

Now that we’ve located the metro station, tomorrow’s adventure is to head downtown to Red Square (I trust the fellow who nailed his testicles to the ground there will be gone by now…) At the moment we’re sort of in the sub burbs — I’ve NEVER seen so many high rise buildings. Literally no one lives in a house or even a town house. All gigantic, grey, oppressive looking buildings — some newer, some very clearly from the Soviet era . Those ones look as the some of the balconies might crumble away at any moment. But downtown, just 5 short subway stops from here, is the Russia we all dream about and recognize.

To Mother Russia…with Mother

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One of Stalin’s Seven Sisters. Moscow architecture at it’s finest.

It’s all Dr. Zhivago’s fault. Thanks to a fictitious Russian, I’m about to board a 10 hour Aeorflot  flight to Moscow with my mother. (Considering the bulk of that movie was filmed in Spain…in the deep heat of summer… I SHOULD really be heading to Ibiza…)

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Doing my best Russian impression…fur hat, MAC Russian Red lipstick.

My mother. Who smokes like it’s an Olympic sport. About to board a 10 hour flight without access to nicotine. I’m hoping a mix of rye and coke (her one drink per week) and Gravol will lull her into a blissful sleep…after I pry her talon-like claws from my hand, or my leg, or wherever she clamps on in some misguided notion that clutching on to me and digging her fingernails into my flesh will avert an avionic disaster.

So why, oh why, are we heading for Russia, on our own, with only a handful of Russian words and phrases in my vocabulary and a Cyrillic alphabet that makes deciphering simple street signs a near impossibility and ordering off a menu a possible minefield of regrettable choices? Because for my entire life my mother has dreamed of going to Russia. For most of her life, Russia was an unattainable place, barred to the western world, an enigma to the world beyond the Iron Curtain, a stoic, stern people who dominated Olympic Games and produced prima ballerinas but who embodied the Red Threat of a Cold War.

Gorky Park Ballerina
Gorky Park Ballerina

As a child I remember her fantasizing about being bundled in furs, riding in a sleigh across a white wonderland. Of visiting waxy old Lenin in his mausoleum. Of admiring the beauty of the onion domes of Red Square…

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As an immigrant from a Communist country, my father was having none of it. There was no poetic beauty to be imagined, and he frankly had no desire to go somewhere where bread lines and black markets were a way of life. Been there, done that, got on the boat to get away from it. My father was also firmly convinced that if given the opportunity, my mother would say something “witty” to some KGB agent/Russian border guard/police officer, and that she, and he by extension, would be shipped off to a frozen gulag, never to be heard from again.
Frankly, I’m not so sure he was wrong.
And so, planning and taking this trip together is my gift to my mother. But fervently I hope times have changed in the “new Russia”… I’m too pretty for life in the gulag…