Mathes Missive From Moscow #3 – Wednesday: First Real Day
Greetings, Fellow Travelers,
I don’t know about you, but I’m not much interested in hearing about the standard tourist bits from people’s trips. What fascinates me is the differences in how people actually live. Like what’s the deal with those funny German toilets?
Of course, one of the first things one has to cope with in a strange land is strange money. Rubles are pretty strange, partly because the ratio to dollars is so weird that it takes a while to figure out what things cost. Like breakfast yesterday. I had scouted out a little hot chocolate shop in which to eat this morning where I could get some kind of pastry for the equivalent of a few dollars. Unhappily nobody cooperated with my quest for an umbrella yesterday. Jane said I didn’t need an umbrella because all she needed was her rain hat (Jane’s logic works this way). Probably the only optimistic Russian in captivity, Julia said, “Maybe it will not rain.” Of course she brought along an umbrella from the friend she is staying with.
Anyhow, it is pouring this morning so I am eating the complimentary fruit left in my room and have made myself a pot of coffee, which is just as well because this quiet time gives me a chance to write this missive and settle my brain. I congratulated myself too soon about sleeping twelve hours yesterday, because last night I didn’t sleep much at all. I am hoping that my brain will soon average the times out and I will be able to have more regular nights in the future.
I just noticed that I had an umbrella here, after all. Apparently I stole Julia’s last night.
But I was speaking about money. We’ve gotten some money from ATM machines, which seem to work the same as ATM machines in the US. One thing the Russians have and we don’t however, are other machines into which you put a ten or twenty dollar (or Euro) bill (or presumably a stack of hundreds), which can identify and count your cash and dispense the equivalent in Rubles. If you trust it to, and if, of course, you can read the directions in Cyrillic. Another strange thing — at least strange to a New Yorker — is the unwillingness of many, many places to accept credit cards. For instance, we had to pay cash to the phone store, where we have become regulars. This is not some minor kiosk, it is the equivalent of an ATT or Verizon outlet. (Notice the young man sitting the corner, by the way. There are young men sitting in the corners of most stores, restaurants and hotels, presumably to deter trouble. Most are much bigger, beefier and meaner-looking than this fellow. There are also young women with Asian features [Julia says they are all from Turkmenistan, and other such old Soviet republics] who continually mop. It is a sexist country, but clean. I don’t know about how safe.)
Also strange is the fact that we have seen virtually no traffic lights. The bumper-to-bumper traffic on the grand boulevards is unimpeded by crossing pedestrians, who have to go through underground passages to get across the street. These underground passages are chocked full of guys who look like thugs and hooligans. So are the streets. Happily not all Russians are so menacing — since apparently many of the aforementioned throng are soccer fans from England here for the finals — and clogging the hotels to such an extent that they can all double their room prices.
So, after another two hours rearranging phone service (we ultimately had to buy Russian phones – cash only), off we went in search of lunch. By this time it was nearly three o’clock. Actually maybe it only seemed like two hours in the phone shop. Anyway, it calmed Jane down to know that we can all communicate (even though the buttons and menus on the phones are in Cyrillic). We even got a phone for our mystery visitor, who will not appear until next Tuesday.
Before we were able to settle on a restaurant, however, Julia coaxed Jane into purchasing tickets for the evening performance of the Georgian National Dance Troup. More about this later (the ticket booth — the Moscow equivalent of Ticketron — would not take credit cards, cash only). Up above is a nice picture of Julia and Jane. Julia has hair down, as my father used to say, to her pipick. I’m sure this is very useful if you are a masked gypsy belly dancer. Jane has a backpack, which Jane insists is very useful despite it looking like a good place to stash a bomb (see below).
The restaurant we finally chose — Julia knew it from her last trip — was probably as representative of the new Moscow as any: it was decorated like a giant space ship, and featured what looked like a giant Egyptian mummy in a space suit. You can see it here just behind Jane and me. Julia took this picture — she likes to hold the camera diagonally. Maybe because she is Russian. Or maybe it’s because she is a dancer. Her hair may also be throwing her off balance.
Russian wait staff are very creative, even though they appear totally disinterested. None of us got food at the same time, several orders came back wrong and by the time we escaped, several hours had passed. Very amusing. The food was tasty, however. And they did take credit cards. The check came with a stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum (label in English, perhaps a relic from the Cold War).
So by this time there was just enough time to go back to the phone shop yet again (we had to leave the phones there for them to program), and dash off to the theatre, which we did by subway. The Moscow subway is suitably famous, quite grand and perhaps the only reasonably priced thing in the city. It would have helped if the clerk had given Julia better directions, since we got off a stop too soon — but making the 7:00 pm curtain was going to be a stretch anyway. Russia is presently having certain… problems… with Georgia, so the security around the theatre was pretty intense. As in — the entire Red Army. Jane was directed by armed guards to check her backpack. Ever the spitfire, she actually tried to talk them out of this. Too bad (or perhaps lucky) for her, they didn’t understand a word of English.
I didn’t quite understand what all the fuss was about, but it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t some nice little folk dance troupe, it was a major Big Deal. Observe the coat room of the State Kremlin Palace theatre where the Georgian dancers were performing. This joint makes Lincoln Center seem cozy. The show was spectacular, with guys leaping through the air clashing swords and women gliding across the stage in their long gowns as if they were on wheels (reminds of Arlene, who in her childhood was subjected to nuns in long habits and didn’t realize for many years that they actually legs).
Anyway, it was a grand evening, which we ended with Planet Sushi (quite good, in fact) and the subway home. Below are some more pix of the day. Off now to meet Jane, who has promised to program all our telephones, but says she has just a few more questions for the girl at the phone shop.