Hello from Moscow!

I’d love to say hello in Russian but I sure don’t know the alphabet and after 5 days, I still can’t figure out how to say it!  I was so excited to finally make it to this city as it has been on my list of “must do’s” for ages.   My first impression was as I expected.  An aging airport with a less then technologically inspired passport control system.  What line to get into was a crap shoot.  As I flew in from Istanbul I was with a smattering of nationalities and every fifth person seemed to be questioned and scrutinized for ages.  After playing musical lines for over 30 minutes I passed through a very thorough passport check where the Russian officer asked me 4 times if I was Patricia.  I’m not sure my haggard traveling look matched my exuberant smiling passport photo.

I was told my driver would be waiting for me just outside of luggage.  I looked through all the hand held signs as I walked through passport control but there was no sign claiming me.  Standing alone with my luggage I was an immediate target for aggressive taxi drivers where I was besieged with offers to help.  This happens at a number of airports around the world so I am very good at saying no and ignoring their pleas but it makes me nervous when they put their hands on the handle of my luggage and start to pull.  There were so many drivers this time grabbing for me that I snapped out a slightly loud and very firm ”no” and they all backed off quickly.  However, this still left me without a car.

As solid 25 minutes had passed and just as I was beginning to worry about how to get to the hotel, my driver rushed in.  Easily 6’ 6”,  with a severe crew cut, a barrel chest that screamed weight lifter and a neck that melded into his head.  Somehow all 250 pounds of him knows I am Ms. LaVigne and he grabs my luggage with a few Russian words and a nod.  He turns and walks so fast that I am jogging to keep up with him.  I had hoped to go to the bathroom before heading out but that didn’t seem to be on the agenda.  My driver continued to walk so fast that me and my short legs just gave up trying to keep up with him.  I thought at some point he would notice I was lagging behind.  He did not.  I came around a corner and was lucky to catch a glimpse of him across the street and at the far side of the parking lot putting my things into the trunk.  I think he would have left without me!

The drive into the city took almost 90 minutes as there was a great deal of traffic (the airport is about 20 miles away).  We passed a variety of buildings that ranged from forlorn and falling down to mighty and important.  You could see the various eras right next to each other – the palaces of the Alexander and Nicholas, the might of the Stalin years and the drabness of Khrushchev.

After checking in I was anxious to get my first look at Red Square and the walls of

St. Basil's in Red Square

St. Basil's in Red Square

GUM Department Store

GUM Department Store

The Kremlin so off I ran as the day was sinking into night fast.  It’s breathtaking.  The beauty of St. Basil’s famous domes and the millions of lights lining the enormous GUM building (an old state department store now filled with capitalist LUXURY goods) made me feel like I was in a Disney inspired park.  An ice skating rink was set up in the middle of the square and hundreds of children were squealing their way around the loop.  A few snowflakes fell but not enough to create the winter wonderland I had hoped for.  It was balmy by Russian standards – 30 degrees Fahrenheit.  At this time of year they are generally battling minus 15 – 20 degrees.

After a long walk around Red Square and a quick hello to Lenin, I returned to the hotel to get a snack as I had not eaten yet that day.  The 10th floor of the Park Hyatt has a lovely view of The Kremlin and the various domes of the churches.  I thought a glass of champagne and some small toasts with olive and tomatoes sounded great and settled in to toast my arrival to this city.  At this point I had not really focused on the dollar/ruble exchange but decided to do some math so I would be able to calculate things quickly as I toured the city.  My first calculation was the glass of champagne I was drinking.  I had to do the math 6 times before I realized that yes, I was drinking a $ 60 glass of Moet Champagne!!!!!  I traveled here knowing that Moscow is currently the most expensive city in the world but a $60 glass of champagne shocked even me.   Continuing with my math, I figured out my little “snack” was $50. Oh, dear.  I contemplated this for a few more minutes and then thought what the hell – yes, I’ll have a second glass of champagne!  Here’s to Moscow.

I quickly devised a financial plan – my room included a free breakfast and they also delivered fresh fruit and cookies to the room every afternoon.  I’d eat a big breakfast and have the free fruit and cookies for lunch.  That would leave money for a decent dinner.   It worked well.

I would love to tell you that there were great Patty style adventures but Moscow was a rather reserved trip for me.  The language barrier outside the hotel made it quite challenging so I was really on my own figuring out streets, directions and what various building were all about.  I was lost and confused for most of the time but I saw many interesting neighborhoods and wandered by some beautiful churches, school buildings and parks.  I was not interested in spending my time indoors looking at a myriad of paintings – I preferred to get a feel for the city and its daily life.  The Fodor’s guide describes the city perfectly: it’s not a pretty city but there are many pretty sites to see.  The fairytale looking domes of all the churches, the imposing size of the buildings, the police presence everywhere you turned, the singular focus of people surviving in a big city, beggars in front of Prada, Christmas trees decorated in a variety of garish blinking lights and ornaments in every square, American Christmas Carols blaring from mall loud speakers, dozens and dozens of theaters and concert halls, the parade of fur coats and the non-stop cigarette smoke – I loved soaking it all in.  Charming is not a word I would use with this city – bustling, struggling, stoic, resigned, determined – it is what it is.

I did hire a guide on Friday to take me through The Kremlin and the famous Moscow museums.  Spectacular!  I don’t wear (or own) a lot of jewelry but I have a fascination with the sparking beauty and creations made with precious stones.  The Diamond Fund is jaw dropping – and it only ranks 3rd or 4th in the world for its collection.  Exquisite Crowns, dramatic necklaces, earrings so heavy you wear them with loops around your ears instead of through the lobes – to be royalty in the 18th and 19th centuries was a good thing!  The Armory continues with a stunning look at the opulence of the czars – dresses made with silver and crystal, carriages of glass, gold and gems, thrones of gold, Faberge eggs for gifts.  My guide Lydia was filled with non-stop stories of palace intrigues, coups, affairs and general back stabbing.  She really made it all come to life and I thoroughly enjoyed her interesting approach to a history lesson on Russia.

My friend Donna connected me with a colleague of hers from Sony and Maria was a godsend.  Maria is a sharp, beautiful 30 year old with a great sense of humor.  We went to dinner Thursday night at a restaurant called Mayak.  A mix of Russian and French cuisine, Mayak is a small bohemian style bar/restaurant over a theater down a small side street.  It’s over 150 years old and you can picture the writers and actors of years gone by smoking their cigarettes, drinking their vodka and discussing the state of affairs.  A mish-mash of tables housed an eclectic crowd of young students, Russian journalists (that Maria identified) and local actors.  We enjoyed a lovely bottle of Malbec and delicious duck covered in a wild berry sauce.  The small space quickly filled with a haze of smoke and as my eyes began to fill with water I was convinced I would leave Moscow with lung cancer.   Maria and I discussed many topics but the one that fascinated me most was the discussion about the stunning women of Moscow and the incredibly unattractive, overweight men they were with.

Maria laughed and said, “yes, it’s not like America – those are the men we have.”
“Are they really boyfriend-girlfriend or is there something else going on?”
“Yes, they are dating. But we don’t call them boyfriends – we call them sponsors!”

Maria delivers this all with a very matter of fact humor that illustrates how Russians size up a situation for what it is and deal with it.  We also spent Saturday morning together wandering Moscow’s famous flea market at Izmailovsky Park. I loved asking her questions about Russian life and marveled at the resilience of these people to take things in stride and work with the daily frustrations that are a part of getting anything accomplished here.

On Friday night, I enjoyed a lovely dinner at a restaurant called Pushkin.  The restaurant has a funny history:
In the 1970’s one of Moscow’s top chefs was walking in the city when a French couple stopped him and asked him where Café Pushkin was located.  The chef had never heard of a place with that name.  The French couple explained that one of their famous French pop singers had written a love song that told the story of his love for a Russian women and how they would drink hot chocolate in Pushkin Café.  The French couple wanted to do the same.  The chef laughed and said that the singer made up the place!  However, the chef realized a great opportunity and with Perestroika he found a three floor pharmacy and turned it into one of Moscow’s top restaurants!  It was a Russian gastronomic feast with a small mushroom pie, sauerkraut and veal soup and beef stroganoff.  The Russians love their creamy dishes.  It’s a good thing I had a 25 minute walk back to the hotel!

One of my favorite things to do in Russia is to ride the metro.  In the 30’s the metro was created to be a Palace for the People.  It is the same in St. Petersburg.  Each underground stop is designed with paintings, mosaics, crystal chandeliers and gorgeous tile work.  It’s fun to get on and off at various stops to see the different themes.

In the end I can’t say that I loved Moscow – I enjoyed seeing the sights, I had some nice meals, learned more about a different culture and made a new friend.  As I said, I don’t think of the city as “charming” and I certainly struggled my way through a number of situations.  I’ve become so used to the warmth and hospitality of the Turkish that the reserved and perfunctory demeanor of the Russians was a big adjustment.  I think Moscow is a city that takes time to unfold.  I found myself thinking it would be ideal to live here for 6 months and really experience the hidden treasures of this city.  I only scratched the surface so I hope to give it another shot in the near future.

Back to Istanbul for this girl.  Hope you are all well.

St. Basil's in Red Square

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