Friday, December 23, 2011

From Russia With Love

If I had to explain Moscow in one word it would be “Chaos”.  I might have guessed that we were getting an insight into the Russian Psyche when our plane landed on the tarmac and people began running from the back of the plane to the front.  The plane hadn’t even slowed down yet, let alone turned off the seatbelt sign when all this chaos erupted. 

My first thought was that perhaps there was a bomb on board or something terrible had happened at the back and people were rushing to the front to get out of dangers way.  The air stewards jumped up and shouted to the crowd to get back to their seats and to fasten their seat belts, which promptly fell on deaf ears.  Those who could squeeze into the empty business class seats did so (without seat belts).

We arrived at Domodedovo International Airport, to a sea of Cyrillic letters and a bombardment of Russian men forcing themselves onto us and trying to direct us out the door.  We later discovered that these would have been taxi drivers – some legal, most illegal.

The 22 kilometer drive into the city took us just under two hours.  The traffic was incredibly busy and we were certain we would see an accident along the way, which might explain the delay.  Remarkably there were no incidents en-route and no explanation for the huge traffic jam.  The six-lane freeway was jam-packed with vehicles, both old and new, all converging into the city at the same time.

There appear to be no road rules, no speed limits and although there are an abundance of police around, there certainly are no law enforcement around traffic.

Our hotel, The National – built in 1903 - was situated directly opposite the Red Square and the Kremlin, a really beautiful sight to behold – especially at night when all the lights illuminate the buildings.

After settling into our hotel we were collected by our driver to take us to dinner.  We went to a very beautiful café/restaurant, stylishly renovated to look like an historic library style building.  The four-story building is as beautiful from the outside as it is inside, with old style deco and an old cage elevator, which fits no more than three small people in it.  It is quicker to walk up the stairs than to use the elevator, however the experience is good.

The food, which is all Russian cuisine, is very tasty and the meals are beautifully plated up.  Prices are exorbitant and if one reaches a certain price, a special “gift book” will arrive with the bill.  This gift book entitles one to choose an exclusive gift (at a reduced price).  I got the gift book, however I didn’t have the heart to spend more money after the meal price!

On our second day we did a tour of the Red Square, Alexandrovsky Garden, The Kremlin premises and GUM (pronounced goom) shopping center.  Our tour guide, who became rather loose of tongue after consuming a little alcohol, also took us to lunch.  She insisted that when in Russia, one has to make a toast with every sip of alcohol.  In fact everyone has to make a toast and each time it has to be a different toast.

We started off with a toast to “meeting good people”, to “great company”, to “excellent meal”…   Once her tongue became a little loose, we were able to ask her to tell us some of the truthful stories about living in Russia and once she opened up, we toasted “to the truth”.  We managed to toast good wine, good weather, a good tour and a successful life.  Our guide refused to leave until all the alcohol was finished – she said that in Russian culture it is rude to leave the table if there is still alcohol on it.  This meant that a bottle of wine was polished off rather swiftly!

That night we went to dinner on a cruise on the Moscow River.  The Moscow river cruise navigates along the banks of the city through the center, taking around 2.5 hours. The tour takes the patrons past some of Moscow’s most famous and historic sights.  There is a live band on board and dinner is included in the price.  The menu is extensive and the food is good.

Moscow has a mix of very upmarket and stylish shopping outlets.  The Gum Shopping Center is a classic example featuring any shops from Max-Mara to Louis Vuitton.  The basement level of the Gum Shopping Center has a very large deli, which will get any mouth watering and have anyone reaching for his or her purse to purchase something.  Coffee shops and café restaurants can be found on all floors and are a great place to meet with friends for a good old chin-wag.

Moscow has an eclectic mix of architecture, from lavish and conspicuous buildings dating back to the Stalin era to the very bland square high-density apartment blocks from the former Soviet era.  It is not uncommon to see a mix of these buildings side by side and of course most of the former Soviet buildings are dirty and ugly from the outside, some were equally as dreadful from the inside too.

At this time of year the city is drab and dark.  The cold weather begins to set in, bringing a dark cover of cloud with a mix of snow and pouring rain.  There is very little bright light in the sky and the darkness seems to sap the energy and happiness from its inhabitants.  I found Muscovites to be very unfriendly, hostile and very suspicious of everyone around them.

Guards are prodigious and man every building.  One cannot enter a building without first having to justify ones reason for being there and in some cases one has to even produce ones passport as identification.

A highlight for me was going to the Bolshoi Theatre to watch the ballet.  The Theater has recently been refurbished, so it looks bright and new.  The concert was lovely and it was great to sit in the audience at the end to hear all the men shouting “Bravo, Bravo!” while everyone else clapped and cheered.

I was taken on a tour inside the Kremlin, which has played a dominant role in Russian life for over eight hundred years. The Kremlin is a fascinating lesson in history.  I loved the Russian Armory, which boasted all the wealth of the city.  Sadly I was not allowed to take any photographs – not even a sneaked photograph because there were far too many guards around and I didn’t feel like being tortured in the apartment with the swimming pool!

I toured the Moscow House of Photography, a seven-floor display of old and new photography by well-known photographers.  There I was able to see photographs of all the well-known ballet dancers, including my childhood favorite, Michael Baryshnikov.

I spent more time in traffic jams than at any one place at one time.  One traffic jam was so bad that the driver of one vehicle climbed out and walked to another vehicle opened the driver’s door and an altercation ensued.  People in the vicinity dispersed and I was waiting for one of them to pull out a gun, but that didn’t happen.  Needless to say, I never felt very secure and could not let my guard down once. (no pun intended)

I took a ride on the metro, which is a sophisticated underground rail system.  There are no signs to direct people, only colors.  A different color symbolizes a different line.  Trains have no timetables they are frequent and efficient.  The Metro is beautiful; it is decked out in Marble, right down to the floors, walls and pillars.  Trains are old and dirty and but speedy and regular.

The entire time that I was there, it either rained or snowed or both.  I saw the sun come out for a total of about four hours on one day.  One of the people I spoke with told me that it was not uncommon for the weather to be so bleak for months on end.  She said that one winter Moscow had three days of sunshine in three months!

I had dinner at a very quaint and intimate restaurant.  When we arrived the restaurant was empty, except for three young people sitting in a corner smoking.

We were led to a table against the window.  The restaurant was by no means stylish, but it did have an old world charm about it and a cozy feel.  As soon as we sat down the three young adults stood up and began playing music for us.  Two girls played violins while the young man played the piano.  They were excellent and very soon everyone was in a party mood!  These young adults knew exactly how to get a party started.

I mentioned people smoking in restaurants… This was something that shocked me.  Most Russians smoke.  Smoking is not prohibited in any areas at all, in fact if one goes into any building one enters into a cloud of smoke.  I found it extremely difficult, especially when in restaurants and in my hotel trying to sleep.  Although I had a non smoking room, the smoke from the other rooms filtered through and I’m sure I was consuming a packet of cigarettes a night in second hand smoke!

English is not a second language to most Russians so it was rather difficult to communicate with anyone.  Departing from the airport was rather stressful for me because I was unable to understand anyone and none of the signs are posted in anything other than Russian.

While Moscow is not a place I would want to visit again soon, this is my own opinion – there may be many people who find this kind of chaos appealing.  I found that after a couple of days, I could romanticize the idea of Russia and so can you!

As usual, comments are always welcome.

~  Vanessa

Monday, December 19, 2011

Abduction or Good Samaritan?

I open my eyes.  The absence of light and my own inability to focus on anything in my immediate surrounds brings a chill to my spine.  I shudder.  My body feels cold and I recognize that my hips hurt.  I try to move my legs but they appear to be incapacitated and pain courses through my body.

I’m exhausted.  The last time I looked at my watch was at 2:45.  I was sitting inside the bus shelter and had already called a taxi three times, yet none had arrived and after walking around the city for the past 14 hours, I had absolutely no intension of walking a further 5 kilometers home.  I would wait.

My husband stood a few steps from me, doing a Google search for a different taxi company.  His cussing was proof that he was having no luck.

From my peripheral vision I could see a maroon station wagon speeding around a corner, no more than 100 meters from us.  It came to a grinding halt alongside my husband.

“Where are you going?”  the female driver hollered.  “To St Ives,” my husband replied, rather shocked, as he had not heard the vehicle approaching.

“Jump in,” the driver said, as her passenger opened the back door for us, “That’s where we are going too, we’ll take you home.” 

“Come on, Ness,” my husband called out to me, “get in.”  I was reluctant, however after having waited for more than an hour for a taxi, I realized one might not arrive at all, so climbed into the car.

I immediately felt sick to my stomach as I realized the enormity of what we had done by accepting a ride from two strangers.  Furthermore, the passenger sitting alongside the driver was a man whom I feared was probably the stronger one if they were considering abducting us. 

The backseat of the car was filthy and I immediately scanned my surroundings to see if I’d be able to open the door in a hurry if need be.  I couldn’t see the lock to the door, and the windows were electrically operated; the driver would control both.  My heart began to pound in my chest.

“You guys are very lucky we came along,” the driver was saying, “God knows there’s no busses well before midnight.  Where have you come from?”  “The city,” my husband replied, “and thank you so much for the ride.”

“What street in St Ives?” the driver was now asking.  We told her and she said: “Same here, it’s a real luck we saw you.”

I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable.  What are the chances of something like this happening, I was thinking.  Is it even possible that they are going to the exact same location and how is it possible that I then don’t recognise their vehicle or them.  I grabbed my mobile phone and prepared it for an emergency phone call. 

There was a strong smell of alcohol in the vehicle and I wondered if it was from our good Samaritans or us.  We had spent a night on the town but I doubted we had drunk too much alcohol.

“What were you doing in the city?” my driver was now asking.  “We met with a friend of ours who flew in from Canada.”  My husband replied.

“That must have been a long day,” the driver was almost musing to herself, “was there something special happening?”  “Excuse me?” my husband inquired, for he is a little hard of hearing.  The driver repeated herself, “Were you celebrating something?”  “No no,” I answered, “we haven’t seen him in a while, that’s all.”

“Where did you go to?” she now asked.  “We just did all the touristy things,” my husband said, “where have you guys come from?” he added, changing the focus of our conversation.

“We’ve just come from a three-hour-long rock concert, it was soooo long.”  I calculated back three hours and wondered where in the world a concert would begin at midnight for it was now after 3 am.  “It was a very long concert,” the passenger echoed, “very long.”

“So where do you guys live,” my husband asked.  “Right where you live.” The reply came.  By now I was starting to feel a little terrified and wondering what these two could possibly want from us.  I don’t believe in coincidence so doubted that they lived where we lived.

Again, my thoughts were interrupted.  “Did you visit any special places,” we were asked.  “No, nothing special at all.”

“How about fun?  Did you have good fun?”   My mobile phone beeped a message through and I almost cried when I read the taxi’s text announcing that it was approaching us.  If we were a tiny bit patient, we would not be in this situation.

Our driver appeared to be in a hurry as she drove over bumps at a fairly high speed.  Her passenger was clearly unhappy for he kept announcing that she should slow down.  Then he began to whistle, no tune in particular as he looked out the side of his window.  The driver then asked, “were you guys at a party?”  “No, not at all,” we echoed.

The familiarity of our street makes my heart pound even faster as the driver asked us which way to turn.  My husband announced that we were home and that she could stop the car.  She asked us to point out our property and we both pointed in no particular direction.  The car didn’t seem to slow down.

“You must be tired she said.”  “Yes,” we replied, “very tired.”  The vehicle came to a grinding halt and I held my breath.  I wasn’t sure she was going to stop.

We both thanked the driver and her passenger profusely and jumped out of the vehicle before she changed her mind.

“What the hell was that?” my husband asked as we tried to catch our breath.  “I’m not sure,” I replied, my body convulsing as a chill ran down my spine.  “Just get me home.”

Lying here in the darkness, I try to recollect my thoughts.  I’m not sure what happened.  It feels like I have been dreaming.  Were we actually dropped off or did something awful happen to us?

I stretch my hand out and feel the darkness until I reach a cord.  My hand works its way up the cord. I find a switch and press it as light floods the room.  I sit bolt upright and look around.  I am indeed at home and I am indeed safe.

My abductors turned out to be good Samaritans after all.

As always, please feel free to comment.

~  Vanessa