Sunday, October 26, 2008
Monday, October 20, 2008
Started posting my Russia pictures to Flickr. At this rate its gonna take me about a month, but I'll get there.
I need to set up a set or a group for all of the pictures, but until then, the trip starts here: http://flickr.com/photos/21279442@N00/2950794788/
Monday, October 13, 2008
* In Russia, there exists such a thing as grilled meat flavored potato chips.
* In Russia, there are many different kinds of flavored vodkas, including: black pepper/honey, horseradish, cranberry/cowberry ('Snozzberry? Who ever heard of a snozzberrry?'), pine nut, and red pepper/garlic/parsley -- all of which I've now tried
* In Russia, toilet paper is available in orange and raspberry (ok, this one's not edible, but I've never seen scented toilet paper and food references go hand in hand before)
I Just Remembered
While at the banya, they had traditional music playing in the N0t Lobby. I looked up at one point...knowing I'd heard that particular piece before...but where.....Ah! I remember! It was the background music to the "Cheese Shop Skit" on Monty Python.
Snicker, snort, snicker.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
What *is* it With the Doors Here?
I got up this morning and headed off to the bathroom, and sure enough, my bedroom door was stuck shut. Played with that thing for 3-4 minutes before it would open. Never could figure out what the problem was - its been raining so maybe it was something as simple as the wood getting a little swollen from humidity or whatnot - but I have to admit I briefly thought Em had done something to the door as a joke. Propped up a chair under the handle or something. I know, I know, it sounds really extreme to think that she'd do something like that, but when a normally completely capable person has so many problems with a simple mechanism like a DOOR, as some point you've just got to consider that there are outside forces at work. And god knows she's been entertained enough by my encounters with them so far on this trip...
Hell, I haven't even mentioned the train yet, have I? Yeah, so in going to St Petersburg, I hopped the night train and shared a sleeper cabin with 3 other folks (a story of its own.) In the middle of the night, I woke up having to go to the bathroom. There was no light at *all* in that cabin. None. We were in the middle of nowhere on a moonless nigh, so nothing through the windows. Everyone is asleep, so no lights inthe cabin. I only know wehere the door is through orientation, because there's no light coming in from underneath it. It was DARK.
So when I get to the door, I can't se what the hell is going on. I find the handle by touch, and try to quietly slide it open. No luck. So I tug a little harder. Nothing. I tried pushing. Then pulling,although with the narrow hallway behind it I knew that was a long shot. Is it locked? Well hell, I can't see, and even if I wanted to turn it on and wake everyomne, I couldn't find the light switch to see. More quiet tugging. I've really gotta pee now. But this thing is not moving.
Defeated, I actually went back to my bulk. I laid there for a while hoping that I'd soon see dawn breaking through the window hearalding the fast-approaching train station, but no luck. I was so loathe to disturb anyone - I'd already made a fairly poor first impression just trying to find my cabin and figure out my bunk and not get in anyone's way with my bunkmates - but I was getting desperate. (What had I eaten for dinner? Would it make my pee stink if I just wet my bunk? Would anyone be able to tell?)
Lest you think you need to remove me from your Google Reader account, no, I did not pee my bed. I got back up and started muscling the shit out of that door; bunkmates be damned. And I'm not sure what I would've done had our door at home not been broken - to close it all the way you have to lift the whole door by its handle. And that's what did the trick for me on the train. I dashed down the hall and returned hapily, relieved at being relieved. Of course, I was wide awake by then and never did get back asleep, but I was no longer having to consider soiling myself as an option, so I'm gonna count that as a win.
Who are the door gods, and exactly how does one anger them? What do I have to do to get them to cut me a little slack? Spin the wrong way through a revolving door three times while sacrificing a levelour blind? Any way you frame it, my future might hinge on this!
And Wackiness Ensued
I like to save my souvenir shopping until the very end of my trips, and so yesterday I grabbed my coat, stocked up my wallet, and headed out. Em wasn't available to join me, but she sent me off with two other women she knows, K and L, who frequent this particular market regularly. They were a hoot, and I really enjoyed myself with them.
We bundled up against the rain and cold and set out on the metro. The place we'd gone to was an open air market called something like Iz-LA-mov-da. People actually sold art and crafts here, as opposed to touristy kitch, although there were still enough martroushka dolls here to choke on. They also sold higher end fur hats, of which I will admit I stopped and looked at. Even tried a few on. And I really wanted to get one -- there are few other things besides those hat that so quickly say Russia to me. But alas, not being graced with with delicate, feminine features (read: a big head) none of the hats looked quite right on me. The colored ones at best made me look like a muppet ("Alll I need is googly eyes!") and at worst, the natural colored ones made me look like I was sporting an enormous mullet. And while 80's fashions are still oddly prevalent in Russia at times, I opted to pass on the more, err, retro look.
Both of the ladies area also teach at Em's school, so the mere fact that I was hanging out with english speakers - and funny ones at that - was great. We slowly drifed through the stalls, acquiring goodies and cracking jokes the whole time. K and L also took it upon themselves to be my agents as it were - they'd try to haggle down each and every vendor we stopped and spoke to. Its a very common practice to do that here, but not coming from that culture myself, it made me really uncomfortable to do it myself. Luckily K and L relished the opportunity and in hindsight saved me a bunch of money. My favorite line from a haggling vendor: "I'll drop the price 100 rubles AND give you two free bags!!" Snort.
Since my trip to St Petersburg, I'd really relaxed into Russia. I finally realized there was no way I was going to avoid people a) knowing I was a tourist and/or b) making a fool of myself over and over, so I basically stopped trying. I didn'ty go out of my way to be rude or anything like that, but I basically stoped caring what people thought. It felt really good to kind of cut loose in the market. This is not to say I didn't manage to still totally embarrass myself though - just that I was able to let it go immediately when I did. Example:
Me: (at glasswear stall)
K: Hey, can I sneak past you to see something on the other side?
Me: (no response, but I stick out my butt and pivot it around to try and block K from getting to the stall. I bump into something with my ass.)
Me: Oh, no, no, no....
K: (sidles up to the booth behind me, grinning.)
Me: There was someone else standing behind me, wasn't there?
K: Yep, there suuuuure was.
50 year old Russian man: (frowns at me over K's shoulder and shuffles off)
Me: Well, alrighty then! Gotta rememeber to throw myself in front of the Metro on the way home for *that* one.
Except that I didn't because we'd made plans to get Russian hot chocolate on the way home - thick, syrupy, eat-with-a-spoon kind of stuff - and dying on the tracks would've made that hard. So instead we stopped at a cafe on the way home.
By the time we'd gotten there, however, we'd gotten a little mixed up on the Metro line and had spend a good 30 minutes warming up on the train. After sweltering in my wool coat for al of that extra time, Hot cholcolate was the last thing I wanted, so I instead cruised the menu for cooler and more refreshing items. Hmmm, beverages: Lemon Fresh. Great! Lemonade; I'm in. Ooh, and mango sorbet. Perfect. I'm set.
I was a little surprised when instead of tall 0r even standard-sized glass the waitress plopped down a shotglass full of yellow liquid in front of me. "That's...cute, I guess," I mumbled. Then came the sorbet, which was a large, decorative glas dish...with a gumball sized scoop of sorbet right in the middle. Hmmm. so far I'm a little underwhelmed by my choices so far, but you know what? My throat is so hot all I want is just something cool to soothe it, regardless of size. I picked up the shot glass and tossed some down my throat.
The glass slammed back down on the table.
L: That's not lemonade, is it?
Me: (hoarsely, though a screwed up face) No, no that would be unsweetened lemon juice, actually. It *is* fresh, though. (cough, cough) Lots of vitamin C! (cough, cough)
So yes, good readers, if you ever find yourself 'round Moscow way and see 'Lemon Fresh' on the menu, be warned. Apparently the old saying about "when life gives you lemons..." is not well known at the cafes here. (cough, cough)
(Also, scooping sorbet into said juice to sweeten it did absolutely nothing except make the juice look like it was sporting a bad case of mold floating on top. But I still drank it all.)
I Just Picked Dry Cottage Cheese off of my Face
Even better, I'd put it here on purpose AND I paid good money to do it. :)
Em, her friend Natasha and I were Russians today. Well, Natalie *is* actually Russian, but Em and I got to be honorary Russians. Naked honorary Russians. We went to something called a banya, or a traditional sauna. Or as it kind of seemed at times, a kind of group, DIY day spa.
My first impression of this particular place was of a lobby-like room, with long, high-backed leather benches, high ceilings, wood wainscoting, and brass fixtures. For a moment, it apeared as though we'd stepped back in time to a 19th century hotel. Except that, unlike most hotel lobbies I've been in, this one was hosting nearly a dozen women draped in only towels or birthday suits, having, you know, tea.
Having all of my preconceptions of the day pretty much squelched immediately upon this sight, I knew I was going to spend the rest of the morning following the lead of Em and Norma. Turns outhe lobby was vack where we paid and dropped of our coats. But even with that knowledge and having the lockers hiding in the wainscotting pointed out to me - and keep in mind, not 5 feet from us a woman in only a thong was applying her makeup in a mirror - my brain had decided that this was a hotel lobby and I could barely take off my clothes. As I slowly peeled off my pants, I expected people to start screaming and the police to storm in and haul me away for indecent exposure. I wrapped myself up in my sheet as quicky as I could. So much for my career as a stripper.
Once undressed, we passed through the frosted glass door into a large, high-ceilinged, white tiled room. Naked women of all shapes and sizes were scattered about; some taking showers in open stalls, some clustered around low benches scrubbing themselves vigorously, and some pouring buckets of water over their heads. We hung up our towels, and aimed for the wooden door leading to the sauna. I got to practice my eye contact as we walked in; a woman bobbed vigorously in a barrel-like cold plunge next to the door, making her breasts piston up and down. Even having breasts myself and knowing what silly things they can be at times, I had to bite the inside of my mouth to keep from bursting into laughter. That had not been a particular sight I'd been planning to take in in Moscow.
The sauna room was pretty impressive structurally. I'm used to small-ish enclosures at spas, maybe holding 4-6 people max. Now, I laugh at their puny saunas with derision. Ha! Ha! Ha! Or at least I would, had my lungs not been burned off and sizzled into pork rinds inside my chest. FUCK was that thing hot! Seriously, I walked in, climbed the steps to the sitting area, stood there for about two seconds before I had to cover my face with a towel so I could breathe, and then marched back to the bottom of the steps where the temperature was only on broil, and not char. I'm sure that 20' square floor-to-ceiling oven had nothing to do with it. I had a brief moment of panic; it was too hot and there was no way I was going to be able to do this. Em - who was calmly sitting there, y'know, breathing - assured me it did take some getting used to, and to just ease myself into it.
And after only a handful of minutes, most women came out and back into the main tiled room, where cold water was applied to the body in one of several fashions. Never before had I been so eager to douse myself with icy water and I jumped into the cold plunge pool (never fear; no pistoning breasts.) And really, once your body is numb, its easier to stand the heat of the sauna, so back and forth we went. (I never could go in without breathing through the towel, though.) The icy cold and the screaming hot eventually start to balance each other out. I joked with Em that it was like vodka and pickles.**
Then comes the DIY part. After you've been sweating yourself clean in the sauna (and possibly beaating yourself with branches of oak leaves at the same time,) its time to scrub down your body with some sort of cleansing agent that you've brought. And by cleansing agent, I of course mean food product. Homemade body scrubs aren't just the thing; they're the norm. Some people use straight coffee grounds, while others mix together paste-like substances. We were a little poor with our preparing; we simply had sea salt and oatmeal, which we just grabbed with our bare hands and started rubbing on our bodies. I think the last time I probably did something like that I was younger than Mags, and I'm betting I probably got a scolding for it. But once you (ok, I) struggled through the fact that the oatmeal was starting to get kind of creamy on your body and is-anyone-else-reminded-of-eating-instant-cereal-on-cold-winter-school-mornings-in-Wisconsin?, it *was* rather pleasant. Then a good rinse***, and back for another round of sauna-ing.
After every 20-30 minutes of spa-ing, we'd head back to the not-lobby. It was during one of these breaks that I was introduced to the cottage cheese (thought I'd forgotten about that, eh?) Nancy had it mixed in with several other ingredients she'd included in her home made facial. We took turns going over to the Thong Mirror and painted the mess onto our faces, and then sat back down and had tea. Obviously cameras were not really something to take to a public spa, but really, the three of us sitting around a marble-topped table having tea and cookies, with egg literally on our faces and sporting a bad case of cottage cheese acne to boot -- damn. Quite a sight to behold, although I'm sure there's some German fetishist group out there somewhere that would've paid good money for those pix.
I got limper and limper every time we took a break. And not surprising; we were there for 3 hours. So. Incredibly. Relaxing. After a while, I didn't really care that lying down on the long leather benches was maybe a bit passe. With every pore in our bodies rinsed out, we all willed our muscles back into life, lotioned up, and struggled back into our clothes.
Good lord. I'm getting relaxed just thinking about it.
Like several new things I've experienced on this trip, I wish I had time to give it a second try. I was lucky in my experience with the St. Petersburg train; it was awkward and uncomfortable not knowing what to do or where to go or how things worked in getting there, but I got to pair that up with a good memory of knowing what to do (and not looking like an idiot) on the ride home. It'd be great to re-do the banya experience, not only to have another drool-inducing morning of relaxation, but again to be able to pair it up with an experience where I felt more like I knew what I was doing. Guess I'll just have to come back then, won't I?
Oh, and appologies to Em's friend Nadine, who's name I could never quite remember and therefore never addressed unless she was looking right at me.
** Vodka consumption in Russia: Shots of vodka are (apparently) often served with a plate of pickled vegetables. After a picked weapon of choice is selected and in hand, a toast is made with the vodka. The you take a sip, raise the pickled [vegertable] to your nose, take a sniff of it, swallow the vodka, and then pop the vegetable into your mouth. Chew. Just sniffing the pickled-ness of the veggie starts to calm down the alcohol in your mouth, and mixed together in your throat, the booze cuts the pickle-ness of the food and the pickle cuts the burn of the booze. They basically completely neutralize each other so that all you are left with is a tasty, tender vegetable. Sounds fairly disgusting at first, but one of my favorite things that I've learned while here. Its like a magic trick with food. :)
*** Note to self: for furture reference, 'a good rinse' includes remembering that all of the oatmeal rubbed onto your body washes down and tends to gather in -ta da! - your pubic hair. For future reference, locking the bathroom stall door before sitting on the toilet and batting at said oatmeal with spread legs is also a good idea. That poor woman.
Thursday, October 09, 2008
Sending out an SOS
Help! I'm lost in the Hermitage! They've cleaned up my breadcrumbs and I don't know how to get out!
Tuesday, October 07, 2008
probably not going to be able to post for a few days; I'm putting myself on a train to St.Petersburg tonight -- alone. I'm simultaneously really excited and fairly freaked out. Its nearly 10pm here and my train is at 11, so I'll be able to sleep for the trip (fingers crossed.) I get in about 7am tomorrow. Wish me luck! :)
P.S. I feel much better after my nap. Ahhh.
Its a nice, rainy day here in Moscow; kind of the perfect day for a museum, any of which I've yet to see. But I just can't do it. I'm totally burned out. I'm exhausted, I have a headache, my legs are sore, and frankly, I would pay good money for a sensory depravation chamber right about now.
Yesterday was a very good day (I'll write about that after I get some rest.) And today started out just fine; I went with Em to the school she teaches at, checked it out, met some folks who's names I'd been hearing, hung out for awhile in the library and just kind of chilled while she was teaching. I don't know if its because for the first time I wasn't out and about being a tourist first thing in the morning or what, but around 10 am I just got incredibly tired. And then I started to get a slow, nagging headache. Em helped me acquire some Advil once she was out of class, but it never felt like it really kicked in. I'm betting I'm dehydrated - I know I've not been drinking nearly enough water this week.
Taking public transportation home didn't help either. I caught the shuttle to the Metro station just fine, but we (surprise!) got stuck in jerky stop and go traffic**, with everyone packed in and slightly damp and fogging up the inside of the windows so you couldn't even see out and yes, someone really needed to brush their teeth or bathe or SOMETHING. Blech. Then down into the Metro, which was also juuust a little too warm. I do hate public transportation on wet days; always have. Just unpleasant.
Even feeling as shitty as I did/do, I had to fight the urge to push through and go to the museum. I had a realization yesterday that shit! Even for being here 2 weeks, I'm not going to be able to see everything I want to, and part of me doesn't want to 'waste time' just being in the apartment.
Then I remembered that just because I can do something doesn't mean I should do something, and that if I don't give myself a break, everything down the line will be a struggle too. Time to take a vacation from my vacation, at least for a few hours.
And like I mentioned earlier, I just need to get away from it all for a bit. Moscow is constant stimulation. The streets are filled with people and cars all hours of the day, and that's quarduple for rush hours, which as far as I can tell run from about 7am-10am/3pm-7pm. And when folks here walk, they WALK. No eye contact, no smiling, and not exactly speedwalking, but walking at a good clip. With the number of people walking, you've got to basically walk at the flow of traffic, or people will just bang into you and you'll totaly disrupt everything. Its very... agressive is a good word. People are constantly passing you too, no matter what clip you're moving at. Also, stepping out into traffic is very common here. I'm not going to say the pedestrian is exactly god, but these walkers are on a MISSION, and no delays will be tolerated.
Then there's the Metro. I hope to devote a post to just this phenomenon later, because it is pretty impressive. But for now, let me just tie it in with the aggressive people around here. Unlike any public train I've ever taken in my life, the longest you will wait for a train here is about 5 minutes. They even have digital clocks up on the wall so you can see how long it is behind trains. Hell, the shortest I've waited between trains here was 40 seconds. I am not shitting you. So you can see how its not like missing your train is anything more than a blip in your day. But still, people rush to get down to the trains, and rush to jump onto a train before the jaws of death -- err, doors slam shut with a powerful clang. Again, more rushing, more jostling past. Rush! Rush! Go! Go! And make sure whatever you do, don't smile! Look serious! maybe even frown a little!
There's plenty of car traffic in the city too. Its totally common for lanes to be anywhere from 4 to 7 lanes across -- in each directions. And these crazy enormous boulevards are EVERYWHERE, not just a few here and there circling the city. I've taken pictures; you'll see soon. There's also construction everywhere, mostly of the building persuasion, but definitely roads too. Near our closest metro stop, there's what appears to be a new square being built at the intersection of several enormous roads. Seriously, I think this thing is at least 4 square blocks of construction, chock full of hammers and equipment and all sorts of noisy things.
Hell, I'm going to stop typing for a moment just so there won't be any noise.
Ok, that's better.
Yes, I'm tired and cranky. Overall, still a very good time here in Moscow; it'll just be a little better after I nap, that's all.
** In his impatience with the traffic, our shuttle (paid van) driver turned off the huge boulevard and started driving on the trolley tracks that paralleled it. Not a road. On the (in ground) tracks that are separated from the road by their own built-up curb. And to boot, he was tailgating the streetcar. Trolleys were passing us with inches to spare in the opposite direction. Even the locals on the shuttle were looking around in confusion and a small amount of trepidation. It was fairly, how do you say...WHAT THE FUCK?!?
Monday, October 06, 2008
Not Exactly 'Multi-Cultural', If You Know What I Mean
Moscow has 12 million people in it, give or take a few. I believe it is the 15th largest city in the world. And today I saw my -- wait, lemme count -- fourth black person!
Why do I bother to point that out, you ask? Because visually, that's about the equivalent of:
white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white black white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white white
Its pretty hard not to notice. I'd probably notice less if these people were outlined in neon and blinking, because then they'd just blend in with all of the casinos and restaurants. (Oh, and close on their tails are the 3 Indians that work at the restaurant over by the University. Whew!)
Ahem: Moscow / diversity = IHOP / diversity
At the risk of making some sweeping, ugly American generalizations**, as far as I can tell its like a diversity vacuum here. The one minority of any size that's fairly obvious here are those of an (apparent) Asian/Mongol/-stan background, and the reason I notice them so much is because they seem to have all the crap jobs - handing out flyers, sweeping the streets, cleaning tables, etc.
I'm totally aware that the US has plenty of diversity and racism problems of its own. I'll admit; pot, kettle, black. But superficially at least, it feels similar here in some of those regards. Just very odd to see it on this scale (especially coming from San Francisco) as well as different faces playing different 'roles', if that makes sense. Its a subtle difference that makes it disconcerting.
**Disclaimer: I've been here 5 whole days, a good portion of which I've either been asleep or drinking. Moscow *might* be where Benetton gets all of its models or where Disney got the idea for "Its a Small World", but I've yet to see it.
Sunday, October 05, 2008
I'm packing my lunch for today's outing, and it includes smoked fish. Not only that, it includes smoked fish in my camera bag. I can hear you already laughing. I'm hoping you'll work with me on this one and let me get through the day without any major mishaps (as it is, I'm expecting to have a lot of space to myself on the Metro.)
Saturday, October 04, 2008
I Bought Fish Today!
Well, let me rephrase that: *I* bought fish today. From a person. Who didn't speak english. By myself.
This might not sound like a big deal to folks, but you've got to understand how daunted I've been by the language here. My first day out, I used the international symbol for "I don't speak the language": I wore my iPod all day. And yesterday, while across town, at lunch I seriously considered catching the Metro to go back to the apartment just so I wouldn't have to try to order food from anyone. However I'd misjudged how far from the Metro I'd gotten and eventually defaulted to that famous Russian/Italian restaurant Sbarro (blushes) because I could just point to the food I wanted.
Also keep in mind, there is no such thing as customer service here in Russia (Moscow, at least,) and that goes QUADRUPLE for you if you aren't Russian yourself. There is no, 'Hi, how are you today?' or "Can I help you?' at ALL. There is complete ignoring, or at the very most a sour look shot your way - everyone's way. Its as if your mere presence is putting them out. And smiling? I'm not going to say it doesn't happen, but I've only seen it happen twice, and nearly fell over with shock both times. So no, I'd not say the atmosphere is really great for practicing in a real life situation, either.
But today Em and several of her friends took me along with them on their regular excursion to a local rEE-nok (phonetic), or outdoor market. Word for memory: Reno (a place where you also lose money); word I actually remember: Reno (whoo hoo!) Anyhow, its a a pretty interesting place; part flea market, part mini-mini mall, and part farmer's market. There's pretty much nothing there you can't buy. Some very specific stalls: the dairy stalls, bakery stalls, spices, vegetables, meat, smoked meat, light bulbs, beaded curtains -- you name it. Actually, now that I think about it, the only stuff they really didn't have was touristy stuff. This was definitely a market for the locals.
It was the first time I'd spent a lot of time out in Moscow proper with folks who spoke english, and it was a great shot in the arm. All of them had at least a year of Moscow under their belts - a few with several - but it was encouraging to see that again, EVERYONE is treated pretty brusquely here. It was also a world of good to hear folks speaking the language at a speed that allowed me to pick up words, hear them used more than once, and to be able to ask questions ("Hey, what did you just say? What is the word for...?") Much better than a book; of which I am carrying around two.
I decided yesterday during my panicked lunch debaucle that I was going to start packing lunches for my excusions out of the apartment. Granted, my Russian won' t get any better very fast this way, but a) there are a lot of really fantastic parks around, full of trees starting to turn into fall color, b) the weather has been fantastic so far, and c) there is basically no such thing as a non-smoking restaurant over here, and its often turns my stomach to be eating and gagging on the air. So in cruising the market, I'd been keeping an eye out for things that would be good to pack out for lunch. I'd seen some smoked fish at one point, and my mouth started to drool. We walked along a little further before Em noticed the saliva dripping down my face, and she suggested I go back and see how much it cost. Buoyed by some (pretty entertaining) english conversation - and the realization that I was really gonna have to just give it a try at some point - I went back to the stall to get some fish.
Granted, I stood outside the stall for a few minuted gathering my courage (and surreptitiously referencing my books to make sure I wasn't making up words again,) I stepped in and pointed to the fish. (italics=russian)
"Please, err, one?"
The woman held up a finger. "One?" I nodded. The word 'da' completely escaped me. Jesus.
She picked up a few fish and felt each of them until she decided on one and reached for a bag. Drunk on the success of not having exploded in flames or been sneered out of the shop, I boldly interjected, "Err, ummm, nyet - two."
So she, y'know, gave me two. It was crazy.**
I managed to pay for the food and left the store triumphantly, bag o' fish clenched in my hand. I crowed about it to anyone who would listen for the rest of the morning, much to the amusement of those in our group (bless them.) It was, as they say, a very good day.
**I'm not entirely sure I can eat all of this fish, but by god I bought them all by myself and they're not going to waste. I am considering keeping one as a souvenir of my trip, as I really don't need a large, furry hat.
Friday, October 03, 2008
(Dammit, my posts are getting out of order. Meh.)
Remember how Thursday I suddenly became tired while blogging and had to take a nap? Yeah, well that was around 930 am; I ended up crashed out until about 230. Even then, I could've slept forever, but figured it was in my best interests to get up and try to get on a more regular schedule.
The night before, Em had given me just enough rope to hang myself, should I feel motivated to get out there: a house key, a cell phone, a Metro map and a city map, and a piece of seven layer dessert bar. I was recycling clothes from the previous days trip (no luggage yet), but decided I was not too funky to go out in public. I gathered up my loot, packed my camera, and headed out (see previous post about ensuing disagreement with the front door.)
The weather had been overcast all day, but was pleasant enough. Autumn has definitely arrived in Moscow. And once you get away from the enormous boulevards, there's actually a good number of parks or grassy areas, and trees line many of the streets. But what Moscow doesn't have is street signs. You know how you walk out of your [building] in the states, get to the corner and there are signs indicating the intersection? Not so here. I walked out of the complex, made a turn, and instantly lost my bearings on the map. Figured I'd just pick a street and walk on it in a straight line; that way I'd either eventually figure out what street I was on and could find myself on the map, or just turn around and follow the same street home when I was done.
After a short while, I realized that each house/building not only has the number but the full street address on its side, and I was soon in business. I'd opted to go for a walk as opposed to attempting the Metro, because it was nearly rush hour and visions of getting stampeded danced in my head. Looking at central Moscow on a map doesn't really give a good sense of scale, I discovered. I walked and I walked, and ended up going much further than I'd anticipated. That might've been due to the part that the clouds eventually cleared up and it was a really gorgeous fall afternoon. Anyhow, I tooled through a small park edged on one side by some fairly random photos, skirted the edge of the Moscow Zoo, and continued down to the river where the White House is. I bumped into a few of the Seven Sisters (skyscrapers that I believe Stalin erected back in his day) and bumped into more than a few commuters rushing about. After crossing a huge bridge, I realized a) I was heading further into the burbs and b) still had to walk all the way back, so I turned around.
I tried for a slightly different route and stumbled across another park. This one had a cool life-sized chess board in it, so I played around with my photography for a while. there was also a movie being filmed there, which I sat around and watched for a while, but the plot was totally lost on me, so I continued back.
I did just fine until I got back to our neighborhood, and then suddenly all of the apartment buildings looked the same. Seriously, I walked in a holding pattern around and around for 15 minutes, just in a two block radius of Em's place. I couldn't find the address, and the parking lot (my visual landmark) doesn't actually face the street. Gah! But I eventually figured it out and stumbled up to the apartment. I did it! Whoo hoo!
That night, Em and I celebrated with some meat dumplings, white wine, and that great Russian classic film noir: Clue. Watching a classic such as that is always a treat, but to watch it with someone who can apreciate it for its great artistic vision (read: can quote all the lines just like I do) was great. All that walking took its toll, and we both called it a fairly early night. I managed to get ready for bed without getting any limbs stuck, and got a pretty good night's sleep in preparation for Friday: my first encounter with the Metro. Stay tuned!
I've managed to have some normal, non-embarrassing things happen on the trip so far too, which I will write about later. Also, I've been taking pictures, but have been taking them in the RAW mode so I can better edit them later. Good for long term, bad for immediate gratification. Will try to take a few every now and then in normal mode.
If First Impressions are the Most Important, I'm Screwed
I had an english word in mind to help me remember how to say 'thank you' in Russian, as it sounds nothing like any language I've ever heard before and I struggle to remember it (and pretty much everything else.) It was a nice, mostly rhyming word. However, in thinking back on it, I think I spent my first 30-ish hours remembering the wrong rhyming word.
Russian: spa-SEE-ba (phonetic)
Original rhyming word: pla-CE-bo
What I remembered: pla-CEN-ta
Which means I've been earnestly telling people "[gibberish]!" every time they've done something for me. Ahh, the only thing better than speaking a language poorly is just making one up as you go along, it seems. (And yes, a picture of a placenta flashed through my mind every time I said it. )
When I need to sleep I have to crawl between two desks to unplug the computer monitor in the guest room so that my CPAP can use the shared outlet converter. So, yesterday afternoon I needed a nap and was down on all fours, futzing with the plugs. After plugging everthing in, I backed out -- or tried to. However, my head was stuck. And try as I might, I could not get it back out. I twisted and turned and son of a bitch, it wouldn't move. How in the hell had I gotten in there in the first place? I wondered. Did my head grow? I thought they took care of that with the surgery!
I actually sat there on all fours for several minutes in a total panic because I could not figure out how to get unstuck. Visions of having to call Em at work and have her leave to rescue me spun through my head. Hmmm. Bet of all the things she needs to inform her guests about, getting their head stuck in the furniture was not real high on her list: 'Here's the security code for the door, these are the emergency numbers -- oh, and while you're at it, the desks in the guest room are pretty close together. I'm just saying.'
I did eventually escape, and it didn't require the Moscow Fire Department or calling Em, for which I am eternally grateful. Turns out one of the desks is on wheels, and I'd bumped it forward when crawling around. Resolved easily enough -- that is, once it dawned on me to try and move one of the desks. Have I mentioned the 11 hour time difference?
The story doesn't stop there, though. After my nap I girded my loins and prepared to leave the apartment and venture out by myself for the first time -- but couldn't figure out how to unlock the front door. I was stuck again (although this time at least I could go pee in the bathroom while figuring it out.) I must've struggled with that door for 10 minutes, feeling like an absolute fool. 'Really, its a DOOR. I think even in Russia doors works the same way, self! ' Now the image racing through my mind was one of someone walking past our door on the outside and wondering what kind of moron couldn't even get out of their apartment. (Desperate, I even tried some of my pretend Russian on it, but to no avail.)
Turns out you need a key to unlock the door from the inside as well, and this particular style of lock requires that you twist it several times before the bolt slides. Eventually, I got out, and I'm *pretty* sure no one witnessed my Display of International Smoothiness.
Apparently the universe has an international number as well as a local one, and what its telling me is I should spend the rest of the trip in the apartment. Obviously.
Wednesday, October 01, 2008
Stranger in a Strange Land
I'll admit that on the leg of the trip from London to Moscow, I started to have some serious misgivings about my decision to travel halfway around the globe to a country where I didn't speak the language. Suddenly my first excursion to a foreign country (other than Canada) by myself seemed a bit...overly ambitious, shall we say. But I was to be staying with TravellingEm, so I knew I'd have help if I needed it. And being forced to go out there and try on my own, while COMPLETELY AND UTTERLY out of my comfort range (how did I forget that detail about myself?!?) would probably be a very good thing. Besides, people travel all over the globe all the time without being fluent in a language. This'll be fine. Ooh, look! We're in Moscow!
Oh, look. My bag is still in London.
Let's just say that immediately my Russian - or lack thereof - was put to the test. The folks working the luggage area were helpful enough, but spoke juuuust enough english to rattle off their memorized lines about the paperwork to fill out for the lost bag. Any deviation in the conversation off of this script brought everything to a screeching halt. But we managed to piece it together, they knew where my bag was, and arrangements were made to have it delivered. Ok, an inconvenience, but not the end of the world. I sure hope my driver is still waiting outside though - it took an extra 90 minutes to get that all worked out.
Luckily yes, my driver was waiting outside customs for me still, holding a sign with my name (and I will tottaly admit that seeing my name gave me a cheap thrill.) He immediately asked, "Lost bag?" I said, yes. And as he asked in english, I added, "Its still in London," which was met with "Eh?" Ah, I see. We've swerved off the script again. Tired and frazzled, I didn't really try for conversation for the drive into the city. Mostly I spent the next 90 minutes dozing, or trying to decipher signs (my reading is noticibly better than my speaking) or trying to not throw up from the jerking around in stop and go traffic. I think I mightily confused my driver with my reading; every now and then I'd sucessfully figure out what a sign said and I would just blurt it out loud: Center! Sports! Metropolitan! Open! Stop! Iggy Pop! (Apparently he was in town a few weeks ago and the billboard was still up.)
Eventually we arrived at Em's pad, and I met her at the door with crazed laughter. We hung out for a bit, and then went out to a nearby Georgian restaurant for dinner -- after I made her promise she'd do all the speaking for me (I'd been travelling for something like 14 hours at this point and awake for nearly 24; I could barely remember my own name.) She (amazingly!) rattled off a barrage to the waitress in Russan, who then immediately ripped the menu from my hands and returned with one in English. We ate tasty lamb, and eggplant stuffed with walnut paste, and this odd cheese bread, and of course, we had vodka. The vodka was preceded with a toast and chased by pickled vegetables with each sip, which sounds a bit odd, but the brine mellowed out the booze and the vodka knocked down the salt, so they went really really well together. Hooray! I'm a local now!
Oh, and our waitress cracked me up. She was attentive and would often check with our table to clear dishes or refill our wee vodka glasses from the special vodka carafe, but every time she came by, she'd reach over and take my used napkin. I have absolutely no idea why. She didn't do it to Em. Its not like she'd seen me drop it on the floor. Its not like it was even particularly dirty. I just got the feeling like she didn't like seeing it wadded up next to my plate as opposed to in my lap or something. I ended up going through about 4 napkins that night. Quite random.
All in all, it was a very pleasant evening as Em and I chatted and gossiped (in english!) and ate tasty food. I think in hindsight I probably rambled oddly and without editing, but whatevah. :) I then passed the fuck out in the guest bed around 2230 local. Woke up this morning around 0600 (dammit!) and actually saw Em off to work. That was about 3 hours ago, but I'm thinking I need to crawl back into bed. Even with the tea I had for breakfast (amazing Russina black bread and some funky Norwegian cheese - yum!) I'm realizing I'm about to fall off my chair. Besides,I need to have my wits about me if I'm going to try and write witty blog entries about my mis-adventures in Moscow, n'est-ce pas? Oh and yes, I need to stop trying to constantly speak in French here too. It just floats up automatically, and strangely. Let me assure you Russian sounds nothing like French. NOTHING.
Crashing and laying down now.
Well of COURSE Tuesday morning I was still running around doing last minute scrambling. I was mostly done, and could've left and just bought what I needed when I got there, but I really would rather not. So I zipped to Target as soon as they opened and then ran back home with my items to jam them into my suitcase. Then, off to Whole Paycheck for some in flight snacks, except, lo! They're closed due to an electricity problem. More running around.
Got to the airport with plenty of time. Had forgotten how irritating that whole security thing is (Ooooh, look out for my scary jamba juice!) but hit no real lines to speak of. Treated myself to a quick massage minutes before I stepped on the plane. Ahhhhhh. :)
Surprisingly, the flights weren't bad at all. The first leg of the journey, I was of course waaay back in economy (I loves me a 747), *but* I had a bulkhead seat, which gave me a bit more legroom and I could bend down and actually reach things off the ground when I needed them (as opposed to having the tray table on the seat in front of me jammed into my sinuses when retrieving a pen off the floor.) No back or sciatica issues (whoo hoo!) and a front row seat for all the movies played ("The Visitor", not a feel good movie but very good; "Miss Pettigrew", entertaining but forgettable; "Get Smart", somewhat predictable, but still pretty damned funny). So that was nice.
The layover was painless if not completely confusing for my body clock, and I immediately passed out on the second leg of the trip. You know the kind: where you are basically sitting upright, your forhead pressed into the window/wall at an awkward angle, your mouth hanging open? Yeah, that was me. For some reaason, I was only one of about 4 women on the plane. It felt more than a bit odd. I'd almost go so far as to say unnerving. Read a local magazine, but was a bit lost, I'll admit.
Cities are cities are cities, no matter where you go. Coming into land, looking down over the rivers and roads and towns, I could've been anywhere. But I wasn't just anywhere.
I was in Moscow.