I had the opportunity to spend a week with my friend Peter
Friday, May 24-Saturday, May 25
I had a 7:40 p.m. train Friday the 24th from Kharkov. On the train there was an old man who was asking me strange questions I couldn’t understand, then whispering. A younger girl helped translate. Men came on the train to check our passports; I thought they were Russian and gave them my Russian visa, but they were Ukrainian. I asked the man (who lived in Russia) when the Russians would come on, and he said in the morning. I was nervous about all of the cash I was carrying, so I went to the bathroom and put everything in my money belt. Then around Belgorod, the Russian immigration control got on board. So I had to take the passport out of my pants. But the old man wasn’t around and they didn’t ask how much money I had, thank God. Later though, I discovered that the old man was just a drunk. He even had the nerve to reach across and put his hand on my leg. I glared at him with a glare that said, “touch me one more time and I will get the militia in here.” I didn’t even talk to him after that. He left me alone, but in his sleep he snored and belched stink bombs.
In the morning when I arrived in Moscow, I felt like I was in another city in Ukraine. It was like going from the U.S. to Canada—hardly any difference at all. The train passageways were the same, and the Metro was the same. I had a hard time finding the hostel, though. I finally flagged a cab (who also didn’t know exactly, but he got me to the right street and I paid him 20 rubles vs. the 50 rubles it would have been with a guy who knew the place and knew I was a foreigner). I checked in, dropped off my things, and went to Peter’s room (I had confirmed at the front desk that he and his friend Christoph had checked in already). I knocked but the maid said there was no one there. I settled in, went to the bathroom, and checked the common room. No one there, either. I went downstairs to the café—not there either. Maybe they had gone to a café and were late. I was ready to go into the city on my own. Then as I came off the elevator I heard a familiar voice. It was Peter! It turned out I had knocked on the wrong door. And they were wondering where I was and were getting ready to leave me a note to let me know they were going into the city.
Christoph had been to
We wandered around to the entrance to Lenin’s tomb. As we
were going through, the guard asked if I had a camera. I said yes. It turns out, ironically, that cameras are
not allowed. I was told I had to go
through the nearby garden and check it.
At first I wasn’t going to do it, but I wanted to see Lenin so I asked
Peter and Christoph to wait. I went
running through the garden (
After they walked in, I took a quick picture of the WWII
Shortly thereafter, Peter and Christoph came out. Peter said that the tomb would have been worth the 60 ruble camera fee. Peter also said he wasn’t sure how I would feel about seeing flowers being left on Stalin’s grave. I said I could try to see it again another day, since I would have one day on my own in Moscow before returning to Kharkov.
From there, with some difficulty and lots of asking for directions, we walked to Bolshoi square and found a ticket booth. Christoph wanted to get tickets to the theater for that night. There was a ballet with music by Tchaikovsky. But there were only two seats together, and one seat apart. I didn’t want to split us up, but I thought this ballet with this music would be more interesting than the show “Spartak” on Sunday night. Peter and I ended up getting the two tickets, and Christoph got the single.
We ordered our coffees and it came in what I like to call “Russian surprise” style—slightly different from our usual concept of the food we were ordering. Christoph ended up with an espresso. I got iced coffee that at first looked like it had ice cream in it. It turned out it to be some white sugary substance that had the consistency of marshmallow crème. Only Peter’s latte was consistent with expectations. I was hungry so I ordered a penne pasta with salmon and caviar—that was much better!
We went back to Kitay-Gorod and back to the hostel to rest
and freshen up before the ballet. At
around we got back on the
Metro and went to the Bolshoi. Peter
and I agreed to meet Christoph at intermission. Peter and I went to our seats, the last row in the theater. We
couldn’t see the stage at first at all. But the theater itself was beautiful.
It was in the same style as the opera house in
The second ballet, La Dame de Pique, was based on a story (Queen of Spades) by Pushkin. I had bought a program at intermission and read the plot, but it didn’t make sense. Watching it didn’t make much more sense either.
The ballet was over a little after 9, but it was still light outside. We took some pictures in front of the theater and the theater’s fountain. Then we got on the Metro back to the hostel. Peter and Christoph were tired from their overnight flight and needed to rest. I hadn’t eaten at intermission, so I went to the kitchen and had a snack while a young woman and man chatted in Portuguese.
Sunday, May 26
Christoph, Peter, and I went downstairs to the café for our free breakfast. It was a standard rundown café with no choice of food and only tea or coffee included (juice would be an extra 15 rubles). The cold dish was one slice of bread with dried-out cheese on it, another slice of bread with a slice of sausage (kolbasa) on it, and a little muffin. The hot dish was something which Christoph was told was “milk soup”. It was thick and lumpy like oatmeal, but supposedly there was only milk, water, sugar, and maybe flour as a thickener in it. It went down easier after the first few bites, but I won’t be asking for the recipe any time soon.
After our delicious breakfast, we walked to the train station to buy our tickets for Moscow-St. Petersburg. The glitch came when the attendant asked for our passports, and Christoph didn’t have his with him. He said he had completely forgotten. In fact, he didn’t have any identification with him. I told him he was crazy to go around the city without one. It reminded me of a book I had read recently called Rates of Exchange about a British man’s experiences in a fictional country in Communist Eastern Europe. It had a quote that without your passport in your possession, you don’t exist. Peter tried to offer his national ID as an ID for Christoph, but that didn’t fly. In the end Peter and I went ahead and booked our tickets, and Christoph said he would book his in the same compartment later.
We all went by Metro again downtown. It was a warm and sunny day, so we decided to sit outside at a café and have a drink. We each got a Russian beer (I can’t remember the name of the beer they had, but I had Baltika which was not very good). We ordered pilmeni (like small ravioli) to nosh on. The food was good, but it had taken a while to get the pilmeni. There was a comment card, so with Christoph’s help I filled it out saying that the food took a long time. Christoph and Peter were appalled, but I said the restaurant would not have asked if it didn’t want to know. I added to my comments that I wanted to return to the restaurant, to make it nicer.
After lunch we went to St. Basil’s Cathedral. Christoph’s Russian was good enough that he was able to get us the tickets at the local price instead of the foreign price. It was brightly painted inside with flower patterns on the walls. Peter thought it was a bit gaudy. I thought it was a pretty pattern but not necessarily appropriate for a church. I also thought the church looked like it hadn’t been very well maintained and that it looked older than the 1500s. But Peter said he knew it was from the 1500s by the look of it.
After St. Basil’s we went walking along the
I had been reading the guidebook and expressed an interest in seeing Ulitsa Arbat (a pedestrian street). It was Christoph’s birthday and I said he should think about whether he wanted to take us out to dinner, wanted us to take him out to dinner, or if he wanted to buy champagne and cake. He chose none of the above. He told Peter he didn’t want to go out again. Peter and I both felt bad about leaving him alone on his birthday, but it was his wish and we didn’t want to miss seeing the city.
Peter and I took the Metro once more, this time to
Arabatskaya. We started walking down
Novy Arbat, and it was unimpressive.
Peter saw what looked like restaurants on a street to the left, and we
went down. Peter’s instincts were
correct—this was the pedestrian street we were looking for. There was an outdoor café called Hetman
serving Ukrainian food, and I convinced Peter to eat there. It was strange how
excited I got when I saw traditional Ukrainian artifacts. I told Peter I must have developed a heimatverbund (home-town bond) with
Our waiter was an exuberant young man from
We sat for a long time eating and talking. I said with a little imagination the street looked like Santa Monica, perhaps because of the open sky (the buildings were not tall). Peter said it needed a lot of imagination. When it was time to pay the bill, Peter and scraped our rubles together but came up short. I asked the maitre d’ if they took dollars, and she pointed me to the obmen valiut (currency exchange). Peter was embarrassed about that.
After dinner, we went walking down Ulitsa Arbat. As we were walking we passed a home where Pushkin (or was it Chekhov?) had lived. We heard street musicians playing traditional Russian rock and love songs. We saw KFC and Pizza Hut and Baskin Robbins, and a giant cow that people were taking pictures of. We saw another monument (a statue), and when I asked who it was for I couldn’t understand the answer. Later I asked again and I think she said it was a street musician.
It was after and it was just starting to look like dusk. Peter and I decided it was probably time to head back. We got on the Metro again. As a way to end a perfect evening in a bad way, we stopped at the train station on the way back to the hostel so I could buy my St. Petersburg-Moscow ticket. We got there right around , then ended up having to wait 15 minutes while all the windows were closed. The attendants were sitting there, counting their money or something. It’s a typical old Russian attitude—we’ll serve you when we are damn good and ready. But I got my ticket. I wanted to take a trolleybus but couldn’t find the stop. We almost got a taxi but when the taxi driver said “200 rubles” I suggested we take Metro instead.
Monday, May 27
In the morning, I happened to be in the hostel office
checking my email when a man came in saying there was no hot water. The desk clerk calmly replied, “oh, yes, the
hot water in all of
The three of us went down to breakfast once more. Today we had the same cold dish, but the hot dish was pasta with a wiener. I wasn’t happy, but as we were leaving I saw people eating kasha and suddenly the pasta and frankfurter seemed pretty good by comparison.
Christoph said was not interested in seeing the Kremlin, so
once again Peter and I were on our own.
We agreed to meet Christoph at Arbatskaya Metro at . Our first task was going
to the agency that sponsored my visa to register. We went to Arbatskaya Metro, and had a hard time finding the
street and the agency. But we got there
eventually. It was a small room with
two women who were amazingly patient and friendly. I didn’t know the exact name or address of the hostel I would be
After the visa agency, we got directions back to the Metro
and then to the Kremlin. It turned out we were walking distance from it. We bought our tickets. Then I looked at my
camera—I only had about three pictures left. We asked where to buy a camera,
and we were directed to the Metro shops.
Unfortunately there were no throwaway cameras underground. We ended up walking back to the original
kiosk where I bought the first camera, which was clear on the other side of the
Kremlin (at least 1 km away if not more).
On the way Peter and I talked about camera philosophy. He doesn’t take
pictures any more because he ends up filing them in a box and never looking at
them again. In my case, I told him, I
was going to scan these into a Web site, show them to friends, and more. And
especially now in
When it was time to leave, I tried to encourage Peter to
walk to Arbatskaya. But Peter was concerned about time and said we should take
the Metro. So we paid 5 rubles (about 6
cents) to go into the Metro, take a transfer, and come out Arbatskaya. We found Christoph at our meeting place (a
movie theater) and then walked to a coffee place I had seen on our earlier
trips to Arbat. I called it a Starbucks
look-a-like. Peter and Christoph
ordered coffee and dessert; I ordered iced coffee and a tuna sandwich (tuna
salad, not tuna steak on bread like I saw once in
We made it to the Russian White House, which looked more
like a large office building than the stately home in
We went back to the hostel and picked up our luggage. I also
got my roll of toilet paper out of the bathroom. I had put it in there in the
morning when it ran out, and had planned to leave it. But I couldn’t find a
proper store in
It was too late to call a taxi, so we flagged one down on
the street. We paid the awful price of
150 rubles (5 dollars). The train felt
exactly like the Ukrainian trains. We
had our vodka and Coke, and I showed them most of the pictures I had from
Tuesday, May 28
Because it was almost White Nights in
When we arrived at the station, Peter had the idea of buying
his and Christoph’s return ticket to
We dropped off our luggage. Peter and Christoph freshened up while I took a full, hot shower. (It turns out the hostel has its own heater system). When we were ready, we started walking towards Nevsky Prospekt to find a place for breakfast. We didn’t get on Nevsky Prospekt, though. We ended up on a different street. I suggested we turn off the street we were on; this move led us to a rynok (market). I really wanted Peter and Christoph to see a typical rynok, so we went inside. It was a pretty nice one. I bought a pumice stone for 4 rubles. Peter was impressed by the amount of fruits and vegetables that were available. I was impressed by the meat chopping block that looked like a genuine tree stump. Peter said his uncle the butcher had something similar (or would have appreciated it?)
It was and we
still hadn’t found a proper café that was open. We asked for directions and ended up at a café that was also a
bar and gambling room. I didn’t feel
comfortable there and to my relief neither did Peter or Christoph. We kept
walking and passed a McDonalds. There
was nothing else around, and I said that it’s typical in
After breakfast we walked back over the bridge with the
famous four horses and wandered around the city, past churches and canals with
beautiful buildings from the turn of the century along them. Peter said
We eventually made it to the
We went back to
When we got out of the Metro, we went to an obmen valiut to change money. This was the first time I had ever been asked to show my passport to exchange money. I thought it was very strange.
At some point, Peter explained to me that he and Christoph
had an invitation to a friend of Christoph’s
We went to the hostel and checked in. Peter and Christoph were getting their visa registered through the hostel, which meant they were supposed to give their passport to the front desk and get it back two evenings later. But they also needed their passports to get money. So Peter held onto his passport until he could get money, then he would return and give his passport over.
We asked for recommendations for lunch and, based on what the girl said, we went to a café down the street which turned out to be Ukrainian. They had a selection of salads, and we each ordered portions of salads by weight. I got shuba (salad with herring, beets, onions, and mayonnaise), Korean carrots, and stolichny salad (mayo, peas, potatoes, egg, and chicken). Peter got the carrot salad as well; my warnings about how spicy it was were not strong enough, so it was a bit spicy for him. Everything was reasonably priced and reasonably tasty.
After lunch, we went to the bank to exchange money. Then we walked down the street (and then around the corner) to buy a small bag (150 grams) of Tide so I could do a little laundry. (I wouldn’t have time to wash and dry my underwear in Kharkiv, as I would only have one day there before turning around and getting on a train to Kyiv). I said goodbye to Peter in the hostel, because I didn’t think I’d see him again until the next morning.
I got my laundry soaking in a big plastic tub in the girls’
bathroom. Then I went downstairs to call
I managed to find
We stayed about half an hour and exchanged books (I had to
give her Rates of Exchange from the
ELF in Odessa, and Alice gave me a Barbara Kingsolver book to read and
eventually give to the ELF in Odessa).
Wednesday, May 29
I had agreed the night before to meet Peter and Christoph for breakfast at (breakfast was available from 8-10). But I was 20 minutes late because I was writing an email downstairs. (It was supposed to be 1 ruble per minute, but nobody was making me pay). This was not a breakfast to be late for though—juice, tea, bread, butter, jam, egg, cheese, and cereal. It was a nice treat for us Westerners. I asked Peter about the dinner the night before. He said they had a roasted duck, and lots of vodka. They got home at and still had a bit of a hangover. Armer Peter and Christoph.
After breakfast we walked to the main traffic circle where the Metro station was, and we were told by people on the street that the trolleybus would be more direct to the Hermitage. When we first got on there weren’t too many people, but as we went on the bus got more and more packed. Peter said it best when we got off the trolleybus—“So this is what it’s like to breathe!”
We went inside, and this time we had to pay the foreign rate for the ticket, about $10. Christoph wanted to tour on his own, so we agreed to meet him at the entrance at . Peter and I wandered through the gallery of old Italian religious paintings, and had an interesting discussion about the portrayal of Christ in art. We saw many decorative arts as well. Peter loved the Egyptian and Greek section, but there wasn’t much time to look because by the time we got there we only had five minutes to find Christoph and I had to use the bathroom (which had seats here, thank God).
We sat down at one of the benches near the steps to the first floor. came and went and still there was no sign of Christoph. Peter was starving and I was hungry too, so we agreed that Peter would get in line for food at the museum café we had seen, and I would wait for Christoph. If all else failed we would eat our lunch at the waiting area. I wandered around after Peter left and found Christoph. We went together to the museum café and found Peter. Then we sat down and had lunch (chicken curry salad sandwiches for Peter and I, coffee for Christoph).
We agreed to take another hour and a half and the museum. Peter and I went up to the second floor (we had only seen the first floor), and saw the great impressionist and post-impressionist paintings including the famous Matisse with the circle of naked dancing men. I had not realized there was a companion piece to that. It was impressive. Peter said he was generally more impressed by decorative arts than mass groups of paintings hanging on the wall. I like paintings and crafts equally, but I appreciated Peter’s viewpoint. I appreciated it even more when we got to what I assume was Peter’s throne, the room where the last czar (?) was killed, and the royal library. The craftsmanship was amazing. We also saw arts and crafts of the ancient peoples of the Former Soviet Union.It was clear to me why this museum was one of the great museums of the world, right up there with the Louvre. Though even the Louvre does not have door handles made of a claws gilded with gold that are holding large ruby stones.
By , our
brains were completely full. And we
definitely felt we had gotten our 10 dollars worth. We decided to walk back to the hostel rather than take the
trolleybus again. I called
Christoph was not interested in going to dinner with
us. Peter went to rest and freshen up
while I went to send some emails and finish packing. I went into the bathroom to put my laundry into my bag, but my
underwear was not there! I went to the
woman on the second floor, and had to pull my underwear halfway out of my pants
to show her what I wanted, but I couldn’t understand her response. I finally
understood that she was telling me to talk to the woman on the 1st
floor who spoke English. I went to the desk clerk on the 1st floor
and told her about my missing laundry. She called the cleaning lady, but was
told the cleaning lady would not be in until tomorrow morning. I said I was
leaving that night. She said she would
make another phone call and asked me to wait. At this point, I was thinking
that the underwear was gone, and that I would have to spend the next day in
Peter came downstairs, and we flagged a cab to Senor Pepe’s.
We sat there eating and drinking until about ,
then the three of us hailed a cab to the train station (I had a
Peter helped me get on the train. Then Peter said, “okay, let’s make this quick”, and gave me a hug goodbye. I found my compartment and put my bags down. But when I went to the window, Peter was standing right there on the platform. Then Peter started pointing at something on the ground and making a funny face. I walked to the entrance of the car, and saw that Peter was pointing at a small fire. I asked the conductor what it was. He said it was “paper”. I asked if it was normal and if the train would work. He said it was and it would. Sure enough, a few minutes later it moved and Peter and I were waving goodbye.
Thursday, May 30
When I arrived at the
I took the Metro again to Arbatskaya, where I had coffee at
the Starbucks look-a-like shop again. I
then meandered (read: got lost and asked for directions a lot) to the visa
registration agency, where I gave them the name and address of the
From the visa agency, I walked to Lenin’s tomb. As I entered it was completely black inside except for the light shining on a soldier at the bottom of the stairs. It seemed surreal and spooky. Then I turned a few corners and saw Lenin lying in a glass box on red velvet in a grey suit. He must have been covered because I only remember his head and his hands. I think Lonely Planet is right; it looked like they had switched the real Lenin out for a mannequin with the consistency of waxed fruit.
I came outside again and found myself near a series of graves for great Communist leaders. I managed to hear a woman giving a tour in English. She explained the importance of the men in Russian and Communist history. I saw Stalin’s grave and got sick inside. All I could think was that he was the son-of-a-bitch who had been responsible for the starvation deaths of Ukrainians in 1932-33, and the purges of party members and nonparty members.
I wandered through GUM once more, this time looking in the shops. I stopped for a Perrier at a café and soaked up the sun coming through the glass.
I walked to the restaurant “
From Teatralna metro (near the restaurant), I took the Metro once more to Park Culturny. This is the park that was designed for the “rest and relaxation” of the public. It still is, though I don’t know if as many toys and rides were available during Communist times. I was sleepy from all my overnight train travel, so I took a nap on a bench.
I was supposed to meet some program colleagues for dinner at a Georgian restaurant called Café Guria. I hadn’t had a chance to call my colleague for an address or directions or meeting point, so I went with the “failsafe” plan of asking on the street where the restaurant was. Even I can’t believe I was silly enough to think that would work smoothly. It’s hard to get directions out of anyone on the street if you ask for any type of place, and few people eat at restaurants making it even harder. I asked two police officers; they didn’t know. I asked at the Metro; I got sent up the street. I asked for directions on that street, and got directed back and forth up one street about five times. I asked restaurants if they had Yellow Pages; no luck. I tried at the Georgian embassy twice; no luck. I tried hailing cabs; no one knew. I finally asked a man sitting outside at another Georgian restaurant; he knew the restaurant and the street, and I gave the street name to the cab driver and got to the restaurant only 45 minutes late and out 100 rubles. Did I mention I did all of this in Russian? Anyway, I arrived at the restaurant, and my party wasn’t there. I tried calling my colleague from the restaurant; no answer. I went to a sister restaurant; they weren’t there. I almost stayed there to eat, but decided to come back to the original restaurant. There they were! They had been waiting the whole time at the Metro stop for me. We had blast talking and laughing and eating and drinking beer. Then I raced out of the restaurant to the Metro, got my stuff at the station, and hopped on a train back to Kharkiv.