Just because we are politically incorrect, lame and ethnocentric, we decided that the name of our car attendant was Olga. And Olga liked my husband, a lot. And Olga peeked in our little cabin at will, day or night, and not once did she acknowledge me, probably because she had those splendid blue eyes set on Tom. And Olga pretended not to speak English when I asked her where the shower was. Oh, but she understood just fine when Tom asked the same question. Her ridiculously beautiful eyes mellowed and a girly smirk made its way across her pudgy face. No, no shower. Not in first class, not anywhere on the train. We will have to do without a shower for a whole, long week. And her announcement was followed by what I'm sure was a wink directed straight at my husband's eyes, which were by now ready to pop out of their sockets. No Shower? We had no option. We would have to practice some serious acrobatics in the airplane-size lavatory whenever we could not stand our own body odors. This Transiberian journey from Russia to Mongolia was going to be rough. Just the way I like it.
We scrambled for food like starving foragers. We ate broccoli, chives, and pickle-flavored potato chips. We downed them with cheap red wine and lukewarm beers followed by oodles of snickers bars for dessert. We bought expensive bananas, drank salty bottled water, and ate some delicious pastries baked on the train and delivered to our cabin by no other than giggly Olga. With such few food options on board, we decided to eat whatever the local vendors came to offer at each train station. Alas, fish was not only their main source of sustenance, but also the local specialty, and apparently the only real food available at all. Now, I'm not stranger to dry fish--my mother fed us copious amounts of it when I was growing up-- but bringing this fishy morsel into a tiny cabin after a week of not taking showers was not something I was willing to endure. So we bought the first bird we found. It looked like a human fetus, and because we were starving and had no morals, we found the sight irresistible. So we ate its wonderfully smoked flesh not knowing whether we were eating duck, chicken, turkey or some other winged creature. And it was delicious.
As soon as we were called to board the transiberian, we started to look for the first class car. Sure, we were ready to rough it in Mongolia but it would be another week before we reached Ulan Bator, so we decided to treat ourselves to a comfortable train ride on an expensive first class cabin. We hauled our suitcases for the length of the train until we reached our compartment. The moment we stepped in, we figured someone had made a mistake somewhere as our car looked identical to the other nine we had just walked by. Two facing seats--metro style--and a tiny table between them, so narrow was the space between the seats that when we sat down, we touched each other's knees under the table. We immediately called the attendant and asked her with an air of indignation, "Is this First Class?" to which she said, "Da."
First class it was.
We constantly bumped into each other, knees, heads, elbows. The table was not big enough for two laptops or two books or two anything. So we took polite turns.
I have to admit, it was impossible to escape each other's physical presence and I began to wonder how many transiberian journeys ended in divorce. We needed a drink. Quickly, we discovered that there was no bar on board (a discovery of apocalyptic proportions for me) and the only place selling alcohol was the restaurant located nine cars away from ours. But we were thirsty and stubborn and determined to digest our new accommodation with the help of some high octane concoctions.
The restaurant seemed to have been closed for years. By the kitchen door, sat an old woman with sad blue eyes that told stories of deprivation, imprisonment, gulags, fear. She extinguished her cigarette and hurried to our table, happy, almost surprised to see tourists at the restaurant. She brought us two warm Baltikas and a menu in Russian (we had left our dictionary back at our "first class" cabin). We resorted to mimicking. Tom did a shabby cow with his hands sticking out of his forehead--the horns-- as he let out a clear mooo. Nyet, she said amused. No meat. It was my turn. I did a ridiculous chicken, both arms flapping against my rib cage, and a pitchy cackle that didn't sound at all like a chicken. After several attempts at this exhausting charade, she got it. Nyet, no chicken either. We would have to hunt and gather at every train station across Russia for the next seven days. Problem solved.
Then came the shower issue.
Ahh, the monument to Peter the Great (Peter I). This colossal sculpture is perched on a high pedestal right on a man-made island in the middle of the Moskva River, less than a mile away from the Kremlin wall. I have to admit, this 322-foot tall mixture of stainless steel, bronze and copper, kind of clashes with everything around it. But it's fabulous. Absolutely fabulous. It was erected in 1997 as a part of a campaign to remake and modernize Moscow, but the moment it went up so did the protests. Many Moscovites deem it the ugliest sculpture on earth; problem is, millions of visitors agree. (I don't)
This gigantic thing (the eighth tallest statue in the world) depicts the Russian czar in full armor, a map in hand, looking over the bow, standing at the wheel of a ship with furled sails.
It is over the top, impossible to ignore, sensorially overwhelming and as far as I'm concerned, the most memorable sculpture in Moscow.
Rumor has it, the original guy was not Peter the Great and the sculpture was not meant to be for Russia. Its haters say that its creator, Zurab Tseretseli, sculpted this beauty for America's 500-year anniversary and the guy at the wheel of the ship was Christopher Columbus. They also say that when the artist failed to sell his creation to Americans (he tried a few states), he reworked Columbus' face into Peter the Great's and offered the whole thing to the Russians to commemorate 300 years of the Russian navy. And they bought it.
Well, haters can say whatever they want. Some claim that the man looks more like the Terminator, Darth Vader or even King Kong. I don't see the similarities. I confess that when I first saw it, I thought it was Gulliver. But that's just me.
It hadn't stopped raining in 36 hours and I was fed up with the cold, the rain and the gloom they brought along. We put back on our Dollar Store fancy ponchos and made our way back to Red Square to visit Lenin's Tomb, but of course, it was cordoned off in preparations for one of the many annual city's parades and we couldn't see the comrade. We tried in vain to find some English-speaking Moscovite to share with us the kind of parade they were preparing for, but it looked as though the Moscovites were in full Russian-only mode. After walking in the rain for many hours between Red Square and the magnificent Kremlin complex, we decided to take a cruise down the Moscow River. A guided tour in ENGLISH and INDOORS so that our toes and fingers could unfurl, seemed the best way to end our stay in Moscow.
The cruise was elegant and reasonably priced.
"Does the price include food?" we asked.
"Da" they told us.
"Is the tour in English?"
"Da, da,da, of course, [you silly tourists]."
We took our seats by the window only to realize that it was raining so hard that we couldn't see a thing through the dripping glass. (Going up to the deck to get blown away by the horizontal sheets of icy rain was out of the question.) As soon as we sat down, a trio of waitresses handed us menus in Russian.
"We were told the food was included," we argued.
"Nyet. No food."
We looked at the prices and settled for two cappuccinos; about the only thing we could afford.
We reasoned that at least we could navigate the river and learn the ins and out of the city, those great tidbits of local history you don't see in guide books (we hadn't been able to find an English guide book in Moscow). The boat started to move and the plasma TVs showed a National Geographic documentary about sharks. The volume was off. We passed what looked like important sites but no one was describing anything neither in Russian nor English. When the waitress came back with our overpriced cappuccinos we asked, "Isn't the tour in English?"
"Nyet. No English and no Rusky. You pay headphones here," and she pointed at a set of complicated instructions on our table mats which included going online, downloading a program, and renting headphones. Luckily I don't go anywhere without my computer. The WiFi on the boat was protected and getting the password took a long time. We passed more interesting sites. We wondered what they were. Eventually we were able to log on, go online, find the correct website, download the right tour (there were 20 of Russia), and after letting out a litany of colorful expletives, we called the waitress back.
"Two headphones, please."
"No headphones," she said.
We looked at each other and then at her.
"Why not?" Tom wanted to know.
At this point, I just wanted to divide the following five minutes into equal parts for laughing, crying, jumping into the river, and slapping the person who had first told us that the tour was in ENGLISH. I didn't want to know why they did not have headphones, which was just as well because she gave Tom a blank stare, shrugged her shoulders, and said "I'm sorry. Want food?"
And it rained. Hard. So hard that it felt as though the rain was right there with us at the table, angry and hungry. Wondering what in the world was that gigantic sculpture we had just passed by.
Every culture has its very own definition of aesthetic beauty, its very own assessment of what is visually appealing and what's not. In Turkmenistan, fountains are of paramount importance; water and lights (lots of them) are at the core of what it means to be a beautiful, progressive, sophisticated city, even when the fountains are nothing but tools of political propaganda.
Moscow, like any other big city, is not beautiful as a whole; instead, it is a massive metropolis of complex road and underground systems, impossible traffic, rain, and stern-looking Moscovites. But, but, it is all sprinkled with gorgeous corners full of eye candy gardens, structures, whimsical art, and music (a group of baritones reduced me to tears when they broke into a surprise Gregorian Chant inside a museum).
Gorky Park is one of those places. It underwent a major reconstruction last year and it is now a free (no entrance fee!) eco-friendly recreational zone, with rides, large green spaces for aerobics, yoga and salsa dancing instruction, the pétanque cafe where you can buy food in a rented picnic basket and pay a deposit for a blanket, grab a bottle of wine and have a superb afternoon anywhere in the park. The fact that the park has an open-air cinema theater free Wi-fi, a 15,000 square meter ice rink, contemporary public art exhibits, a mobile book store, and plush swings to drink, dream, and read, makes this park my favorite spot in Moscow.
Oh, and what about them building jammies? Pictures 1, 2, and 3 are not fully erected buildings. They are pictures of construction sites disguised as functioning edifices Cover the mess with your prettiest PJ's and you have a beautiful looking building that fools the eye.
I was raised in a Catholic family but I started to disagree with Catholic tenets in Middle school when father Ignacio mentioned in Religion class something about "professional pardoners," people who the Catholic church used to send during the late Middle Ages to collect alms in exchange for salvation from eternal damnation (after confession and subsequent absolution, that is).
How about the poor? and what was the point of the confession/penance combo if people were expected to pay cash for indulgences (partial remissions of temporal punishment) for sins which had already been forgiven?
I was 13, indignant and confused.
During the same year, father Ignacio also explained that the conception of Jesus was a miracle which involved no human father, no sexual intercourse, no male seed in any form, and which was made possible by the Holy Spirit--a concept that contradicted my idea of Jesus as a regular man with an extraordinary heart. And as if that weren't enough, father Ignacio also explained that natural birth was considered so abhorrent that the Catholic Church had decreed the immaculate conception of Mary.
Natural birth abhorrent?
Many more discoveries and points of contention took place throughout high school and by the time I was accepted into undergraduate school, I was no longer a Catholic.
It would be fair to say that I have walked a bumpy spiritual path in the last thirty years; it became dangerously narrow at some intersections, had scary cliffs, long stretches of nothing but rolling pastures, gentle hills and dull plateaus, and periods of curiosity, accompanied by pangs of thirst and hunger for the many flavors of religion.
Yet, churches remain sacred places for me, corners of infinite peace, vast spaces inhabited by silence and sorrow and hope and tears, of which I can never get enough. Moscow has plenty of them (more than 300 hundred), which is pitiful compared to the over 1000 churches that existed before 1917 when the Bolsheviks came to power and the revolution's ideology of state atheism ordered the destruction of places of worship and/or their reconditioning for political purposes. The Russians had to wait more than seventy years to exercise their right to freedom of religion which came under Gorbachev's glasnots policy to abandon the persecution of religious groups. The result is the revival of Russian spirituality and religious fervor which can be seen in brand new as well as in recently renovated Churches, one more spectacular than the next.
The Cathedral of Christ the Savior is like no other Christian church I have ever visited. The Russian Orthodox who come here are hard core. They remove their shoes before entering the church, women cover their heads with scarves, they kiss the relics and light candles at every icon (there are dozens of them), the cathedral is awash with the murmured prayers and the tears of those who come looking for a miracle, an answer, for absolution.
King Alexander authorized its construction in the 1800s when Napoleon Bonaparte withdrew his troops from Russia.Its walls were initially inlaid with precious stones and displayed over 1,000 square meters of exotic marble. The dome, which was covered by a hefty coat of gold, made this the tallest Orthodox Cathedral in the world. Then in the 1920s Stalin decided to convert the cathedral into a monument to socialism he named The Palace of the Soviets (an unsightly complex of buttresses and futuristic architecture). When the communist party ran out of money, it was decided that the 20 tons of gold covering the dome could be put to some good use and the cathedral was dismantled. As it turned out, the marble was used in the construction of metro stations, the gold for political purposes, and the Palace of the Soviets was never finished. The cathedral was turned into the world's largest open air swimming pool. A swimming pool.
It was mercifully rebuilt in the 1990s and a foot bridge over Moscow River was added in 2004.
And outside it all, I saw a bride in stilettos running toward the Cathedral with two miniskirted bridesmaids. Where else could I see that?
Every traveler has a honeymoon phase with the place she visits. This initial state of wonderment, this giddiness caused by jet-lag, novelty and sunshine, this child-like attitude that makes the traveler point at everything she sees and shout, "look, look, look," eventually comes to an end. It happens when she tries to communicate in the local language and the locals have no patience for her fractured attempts; when a simple procedure, like having a piece of paper stamped, becomes a week-long ordeal of bureaucratic dances, when her greetings and smiles go either ignored or are scoffed at, when she gets confused by the local currency (which irritates the supermarket cashier and everyone standing in line), when she goes shopping for souvenirs, lifts some foreign object and asks, "excuse me, what is this?" and all she gets is an eye roll and a sigh.
And when on top of it all, the traveler wakes up nice and early to a torrential rain that doesn't abate for 24 hours, and the wind blows colder and harder with each passing minute, and the idea of catching a taxi is out of the question because the traffic is horrendous, she does what any good traveler does in these circumstances: smile and make the most of it. Focus on the good and use her head to understand the not-so-good.
She admires the metro stations (she tries to snap pictures but they are not allowed as the stations are considered military installations and crawl with police), gets serious vertigo going up and down the longest, steepest escalators in the world (they were built deep underground to serve as bomb shelters), and gets all giddy again at the sight of a place intricately decorated with mosaics, sculpture and bas-reliefs made of engraved metal, glass, granite, marble, or carved alabaster. The metro stations in Moscow were meant to be "palaces for the people" and as such, each has its own theme, ranging from futuristic to realist, from war-related to avant garde, from deeply socialist to seriously nationalist.
The Metro truly is a fantastic display of immeasurable artistic talent and functionality: over 130 miles of route length, boasting 12 lines and 177 stations, and carries an average of over 7 million commuters per day. Finding out this underground free-of-charge museum might make the traveler point and shout again and again: "look, look, look."
This pink-stilettoed beauty strutted her stuff in the middle of a downpour like nobody's business. She stopped the traffic, literally. The whole city of Moscow yawned. There are different kinds of hunger.
The staff at our overpriced hotel in Moscow were definitely not required to smile at their customers. We ordered two cappuccinos at breakfast time but the waitress seemed offended. She scoffed, did a dramatic eye roll and tsked as she walked away. I would see the same behavior at the infinite number of metro stations, restaurants, museums, and parks.
Although I'm not a chatty social butterfly, Russians stroked me as a tad distant, a tad un-engageable, a tad impenetrable. I'm still wondering if decades of a communist regime altered not only the collective but also the individual characters of Russians. Or maybe, it's just Moscow. Maybe Moscovites are to Russians like New Yorkers are said to be to the rest of America.
Junk food was out of the question. I haven't eaten a hamburger in over ten years and the sight of a hotdog makes my insides recoil. Taking five trains and making it across Moscow to go back to Izmailovsky market was not an option either. Eating at fancy restaurants was unthinkable. They are too overpriced, too un-affordable. A couple of small cappuccinos and one slice of black forest cake= 60 Us dollars. No way Jose. We started to look for options and neither starving nor breaking our fast with cheap vodka made our list. We found a nearby bakery that sold fresh-out-of-the-oven cheese pastries to die for and moderately priced bottles of wine. And so we survived on bread and wine for a few days. Needless to say this biblical diet made us feel holier and holier with each passing day. So much more aligned with my principles and MO than Catholic confession.
It was such a glorious day and we had fallen so madly in love with Moscow that we decided just to take the metro to downtown and wander off. I have to admit, I was a little bit taken aback by what I saw at this plaza. It was similar to some things I had seen in New York, London, Paris...any big city, really, but with a twist. Red, green, yellow wigs, impossibly high stilettos, funky-looking boots, gothic make-up, EMOs, and this red-faux-leather-clad chick, among dominatrices, divas, and a middle-aged woman in a naughty school girl outfit. It occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, Russians celebrated Halloween in September.
I asked around but no one, NO ONE, seemed to speak English. We grabbed two Baltikas and sat atop a concrete fence overlooking the plaza. Everyone was drinking in public and there was no police force around, a fact about Russian life I found incredibly refreshing.
Half-way through our Baltikas, a group of young women took over our spot (Russian definition of personal space is different from mine). I asked yet again: "Do you girls speak English?" One of them said yes (she said "da") and I asked her what was going on.
Anime convention. She said. Don't you have them in your country? she wanted to know.