Wandering the World
Arriving in Moscow I had absolutely no expectations, I hadn’t researched anything, I hadn’t read any novels taking place in Moscow and it had never really occurred to me to come here. In my experience, this is the ideal way to arrive at a place because I can’t possibly be disappointed. I am open to anything, and everything is interesting. Some of my worst travel experiences have been to places that I obsessed over before going. If I have spent years thinking about a place, it can not help but disappoint because every experience that is not over the top, is lacking in my mind. Moscow however, was a delight.
My train pulled up in the morning, too early to actually check into my AirBandB but I decided to take a taxi there anyway in the off chance I could get in. I probably could have walked since I purposely chose a place close to the train station but I still wasn’t sure of my injured foot and I had a suitcase, a bag, my purse and a camera bag so I decided to splurge (at that point I didn’t know how much of a splurge it was going to be).
Upon emerging from the train after 8 days, I was confronted by a bunch of taxi drivers offering their services, wanting to get to my lodging quickly I took one of them up on his offer. We tromped across the rough, pitted parking lot to his car and I got in. He spoke a bit of English and we chatted a little. Upon arrival, 5 minutes later (the apartment really was very close), he charged me 20 Euro! This was more than twice what I had been charged to go over an hour in Vladivostok and was waaaaaaay more that it should have been. I said no, and he locked the door so I couldn’t get out. He then proceeded to say Ma,am in a demanding way so I retorted with Sir and we did that for quite a while.
Until finally he got tired of this exchange. The price should have been just a few Euro but unfortunately my lowest bill at that point was a 10 and there was no way he was giving me change so he took the 10 unlocked the door and let me out.
Welcome to Moscow! I wasn’t really that upset though because these things do happen while traveling, it is not the first time a cab driver has ripped me off and it won’t be the last.
I got ahold of my host and she was able to let me in an hour later, I cooled my heels at the little parkette across the street and read a book. The first thing I noticed after getting in, was the amazing huge bath tub. After 10 days of not being able to bathe, I spent the whole morning in the bath tub soaping up and rinsing off, it was heaven.
Happily clean, I headed out to explore the city. I decided that I didn’t want to take any transportation other than my own 2 feet that first day and since one of those feet was not working quite properly yet, I explored the neighborhood and found a big park just around the corner. Easter season was in full swing in Russia and spring was beginning to show its face just a little. Almost everything was still brown but the snow had melted and people were in high spirits.
The next day I had one goal, to get train tickets for the next leg of my journey, Moscow to Chisinau, Moldova. I gave myself the whole day because, not knowing what I was doing, where I was going or any of the language, the probability of messing up was high. I had to get to the central train station on the other side of the city. I had Google maps and I found the subway station, figured out how to get a ticket and arrived at the platform where I encountered my first challenge, which side of the platform was going in the correct direction? All of the signs were in Cyrillic. Cyrillic is a bit of a tease, it is not as foreign looking as Japanese and some of the letters are the same as the Roman alphabet but they are pronounced differently. This meant I couldn’t really figure out what they were saying any more than I could in Japan but unlike in Japan, where they usually had Roman letter translations next to the Japanese, in Russia, you are on your own. I ended up walking up to random people, showing them my google maps directions and having them bundle me onto whatever train I was supposed to get on. Happily everyone was nice and got me on the right trains even thought we couldn’t communicate beyond that.
It was on the subway that I encountered my first happy surprise, the subway itself is a destination. Every station was unique and spectacular. There were vaulted ceilings, stunning architecture, murals, mosaics and sculptures. I couldn’t wait to arrive at the next stop to see what it had to offer. My favorite was the Revolution Square stop where every pillar had a more than life sized statue of a soldier somewhere around it brandishing a gun. It was as if there was a fierce battle going on in the station but it had been frozen and the rest of the world was just going about its business not even glancing up at it. The war among us was unacknowledged.
I saw the wall of the Kremlin
and St. Basil's Cathedral
Easter was in full swing and the eggs were ripe on the trees.
Moscow street performer
The next day was my last day and I absolutely couldn’t put off shopping any longer as people were expecting gifts so I checked out where was the best place to buy handicrafts and found an interesting looking market that was way far away. After my previous successful forays on the public transportation system I felt ready. This time it was much more challenging because not only did I have to go on the metro, I also had to figure out the bus system and change busses several times. After much marching back and forth in confusion, I managed to find the correct busses and got off at the correct stop only to walk in the wrong direction for about 45 minutes.
The directions said something about the market being in a park and I was in a park, covered in trees with a little amusement park along the way. It was beautiful and peaceful but I saw absolutely no sign of any market. Finally I gave up and retraced my steps back to the bus stop and went the other way. There it stood, like an amusement park, crazy in its exuberance. I began to wander the stalls filled with nesting dolls, felted slippers and leather goods. At first I wanted to buy everything but then the familiar shopping paralysis started to set in, there were too many things, I didn’t know what to buy. I was tempted to turn right around and march out but I needed gifts so I took a little detour through the used book stores and that calmed me a bit. There is something about books that makes me feel centered and happy, especially dusty leaning stacks of books.
Shopping round two was more successful and I was able to find a set of nesting Ataturk dolls for my father in law, a stone necklace with a kitten painted on it for my daughter and several other small things that would fit in my already overstuffed luggage. I even got into a great conversation with one of the venders about growing up in the 80’s him in the Soviet Union and me in Russia. I ended up buying a hat from one guy and his friend, a guy around my age started joking with me and wanted me to look at his stuff. I went over, he had a great sense of humor and we started talking politics because a lot of his dolls were political figures. I ended up buying an Ataturk set and a Harry Potter set. Usually once you buy something, the vendor looses interest but not this guy. He kept ignoring his other customers because we were having so much fun talking. Finally after talking for like a half an hour, I asked him his name and he tested me. He said his father was a super communist so what was his name? I ventured Lenin and he got a big smile on his face and said yes, Lenin’s first name. It was so nice to talk to him! He said he liked talking to me because my smile was real, not fake like most Americans. This struck me as interesting because I had been thinking so much about smiling in Russia. It also made me think about how we perceive things like smiles. I could see why he thinks most Americans have fake smiles but I would put it a different way. I wouldn’t say those smiles are fake but rather they are “social smiles”. By this I mean that while they don’t show happiness necessarily, and in this way are fake, they signal to the other person that we are open and can be approached without fear. Those smiles, given to strangers don’t show emotional state so much as availability. His interpretation of American smiles were that they make us untrustworthy, exactly the opposite of what is intended. This jived perfectly with my initial interpretation of the lack of smiles, that people didn’t like me.
Moscow left me wanting more, I feel like I barely scratched the surface of this fascinating city!