Thursday, September 09, 2004

Finally, the first Russia post! (Sunday and Monday) 

I know I must just seem like the blogging slug of the century--here we are, back from Russia for a week and a half, and I am just now getting around to posting about it. You have to understand though: I returned home from Russia with 350+ photos spread out across 4 memory sticks. It takes a lot of time to go through all those pictures, do the laundry, feed the kids occasionally, AND obsess about a hurricane threatening to obliterate the family homestead. It's a good thing I don't have a job, or I'd never get anything done. I am now going to attempt to show you around Moscow with a little help from Moscow Taxi.

We left for Russia well before dawn on the morning of Sunday, August 22. Amy, Mom, and I had driven up to the airport the night before to check the bags, and it's a good thing we did. Our train out of Mannheim was close to a half-hour late; we would have most likely missed our flight if we'd needed to wait in the check-in line that morning.

The plane ride was uneventful, and we reached Moscow at around lunchtime. The immigration control folks wouldn't accept the forms that the Moscow embassy had pre-printed for us to turn in, so we had to fill out new forms there at the airport--business as usual for Russia. We were met by Valentina, our Moscow tour guide, and taken by van to the hotel.

The first thing that struck us about Moscow was the intense heat. We had been following the weather forecasts for the previous 7 days, and they were consistently predicting cool temps and lots of rain. Ha! It was hot and dusty when we arrived, and we were quite toasty in our long sleeves and long pants.

After Valentina got us checked into our rooms at the Hotel Izmailovo, Alpha Block, we had the rest of the afternoon to do as we pleased, as supper would not be served that first night until 9:00 p.m. The first thing we did was hightail it to the nearby flea market, the biggest one in all of Russia.

The walk to the flea market drove home the fact that we were in an entirely different culture. It reminded me of a market scene in an Indiana Jones movie--hot and dirty with "dancing" bears on chain leashes.

The flea market was the scene of perhaps our greatest regret in Russia. We should have bought more--more little dolls in traditional dress, more matrioshka dolls, more Russian Santas, and--in Mike's case anyway--more black-market CDs and DVDs. We were overwhelmed by choice though, and we were starting to feel hungry, so we made a few purchases and promised each other that we would indeed return!

I wandered away from the group to look at something and when I returned, Annabelle was in the middle of being sketched by a wandering artist:

He gladly posed for a picture with her when he was done drawing:

Here's the picture and while it is really good, I'm embarrassed to admit what I paid for it (cough 30 bucks cough). I just don't have it in me to haggle over a picture of my kid, I guess:

After the market, we walked over to the metro station directly across from our hotel and hopped on a train to Arbatskaya, as instructed by the clerk at the reception desk, in search of the Hard Rock Cafe. Smolenskaya would have been a much closer station, but getting off at Arbatskaya gave us an opportunity to stroll the pedestrian zone on Ulitsa Arbat. We finally found the Hard Rock and fed the kids meals, not knowing whether they would be willing to eat the hotel food or not. Amy, Mom, and I shared an appetizer platter, and Mom and I shared a Bahama Mama as well. After the meal, I took a picture of the rest of my gang on the front steps of the restaurant:

At this point, we still believed that our good weather was a temporary stroke of dumb luck (and in a way it was), and I was determined that we should see St. Basil's cathedral and Red Square while the sun was still shining. As we were searching unsuccessfully for the closest metro stop, we were approached by a taxi driver. We would love to take a taxi, I explained, but unfortunately there was no way 6 people besides the driver were going to fit in that little car. I was wrong--you can smoosh 5 people into the backseat of even the smallest car if the price is right, which at approximately $10 it was. I took the front seat, as I was the only one who spoke any Russian at all (I pointed at different buildings and said "pretty" in my bestest Russian all the way to Red Square). Our driver ran only 1 red light that I noticed, and we arrived at Red Square just before sunset.

Annabelle immediately announced a need to find a restroom. There was a row of pay port-a-potties tended by little old women, so Mom took Annabelle and an American dollar over and looked for the cleanest dirty pot. The woman in charge of that particular potty got a bargain, because not only did Mom personally clean the facilities with her own stash of alcohol wipes, but she also paid a buck for the privilege of doing so. After that brief comfort stop, we headed under the Resurrection Gate and found ourselves in Red Square.

Red Square is amazing. Picture a large rectangle bounded on its 2 long walls by the Kremlin wall on one side and the shopping center GUM on the other. The State Historical Museum stands at one end, and St. Basil's stands at the other. This website has a couple of nice 360-degree views of Red Square.

We took turns taking pictures in front of Lenin's tomb and in front of St. Basil's. Of the 350+ photos I have from the entire week, probably 10 percent are of this church. I seem to have a disorder that requires me to photograph it every time I walk past it, drive by it in a bus, or ride by it in a boat on the Moscow River. I left Red Square that evening delighted to have beaten the rain, even if my lighting was starting to go dim.

We took the metro back to our hotel and met up with some of the other members of our guided tour at supper that night in the hotel restaurant. Supper got mixed reviews--it was meat and potatoes, which is great if you're into that kind of thing. I can take it in small quantities, but it was a common culinary theme throughout the week, and it got a bit tiring. One thing that helped us through the week was switching food around--the adults generally got doubles on salads, as the salads weren't very popular with the kids; Rebecca took care of any surplus potatoes; and you could always count on Annabelle to wolf down any unwanted tomatoes.

Monday, August 23, was Annabelle's ninth birthday. She was very excited to be celebrating it in Moscow.

That morning after a breakfast that featured such diverse choices as spaghetti (no sauce), french fries, and blini (little cheese-filled pancake pockets smothered with quark), we met Valentina and the other members of our group. We had 2 sets of mothers and adult daughters from Austria; an older German married couple; a young German/Russian girl and her German boyfriend; and a young man from Stuttgart (who reminded me and Mom of my sister's fiance--in fact, we dubbed him "German Jeff" and "J'Lal," which stood for "Jeff Look-A-Like") who was taking the tour with his parents.

We set out from the hotel for our Stadtrundfahrt ("city circle tour"--) in our tour bus. Being on a German tour provided a 2-for-1 special for me--not only did I get an amazing vacation, but I also got a week of intensive German practice through translating for Mom, Amy, and the kids.

One of the first stops on our tour was Red Square. Our fears of the approaching rain were thus far unfounded, and we enjoyed glorious weather for more St. Basil photographing:

We visited Kazan Cathedral at the other end of Red Square and walked back through GUM, which is pronounced "goom" and is an enormous shopping center running the length of the square. We noticed posters throughout GUM of a little cartoon mouse- or bear-type creature--it was Cheburashka, a Russian cartoon character that served as the mascot for the Russian Olympic team. I could have bought a stuffed one at GUM for a ton of money, but instead I found one at a souvenir stand for $10--mine plays a most annoying tune when you press his stomach.

After our walking journey through Red Square, we returned to our bus to continue the driving tour. We drove past the Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer, blown to pieces courtesy of Stalin in 1931 but reconstructed in 1994-97, and caught a glimpse of the monument to Peter the Great that towers over the river. We drove by the Church of St. Nicholas of the Weavers and stopped off at the Novodevichiy Convent.

Somewhere along the way, we stopped off at a souvenir shop where we were greeted with free samples of vodka. Valentina bought Annabelle a wooden doll and spoon in honor of her birthday:

We wound up near the Moscow State University, where we were able to see an overview of the city below us and shop for souvenirs. I bought a very cool Tshirt. On the front, it features Lenin's head pictured across those ubiquitous golden arches; on the back, it sports the slogan: "The party is over."

After lunch at a restaurant downtown, we began our tour of the Kremlin. No sooner were we inside the Kremlin walls than the sky started turning ominously dark.

We strolled past the State Kremlin Palace, which Valentina derided as ugly and out of place. She predicted that it would be torn down sometime in the coming years. We also saw the Ivan the Great Bell Tower and the Tsar Bell and Tsar Cannon.

We were able to go into 2 of the Kremlin churches. Here is where I'm wishing I had blogged sooner or made notes: I know for a fact that the second church we went in was the Cathedral of the Assumption, but what was the first one? It might have been the Cathedral of the Archangel . . . or it might have been the Cathedral of the Annunciation.

We left the second church, the Cathedral of the Assumption, just as the rain started to fall. We dashed across the courtyard and huddled in small groups into recesses along the side of the Great Kremlin Palace. I was in one recess with Amy, and my mom was 1 recess ahead of me with the kids. Suddenly a crack of lightning hit directly in front of us, and scared us all half to death. I knew that the noise would have really shaken Annabelle up, and as I dashed through the rain to be with her, I found this to be quite true. She was terrified and crying hysterically.

Soon our entire tour group was running through the pouring rain in a mad dash to escape the Kremlin and get back on our nice dry bus. Unfortunately, the exit gate was clogged with people who had taken refuge from the rain under the arch. There was a crowd of people, many with umbrellas open, pressing to get through this small tunnel, and it was turning into a potentially dangerous situation.

Just to the left of the pedestrian arch was a gate just for vehicular traffic. Mom and I took the kids and went over to ask the guard to let us out that way. At the same time that we were trying without success to make him understand the situation in the pedestrian exit, a Russian man came over and began demanding to be let out the vehicle gate. The guard yelled back, unsnapped his holster, and pulled his pathetic little weenie of a gun out several inches to show us all that he was not somebody to be messed with. No way was anybody going out that gate!

The scene was chaos. We had just had a gun semi-pulled in front of us. Our guide was yelling at the guard in Russian. I was yelling in English, pointing at Annabelle and demanding, "Can't you see she's scared?" We kept trying to impress upon him the need to call for backup to break up the logjam in the pedestrian exit, and I remember yelling at him that "somebody could die in there!"

Next thing I knew, he pointed straight at me and yelled, "You! Shut! Up!"

"No, YOU shut up!" I yelled back. I'm fuzzy on what happened next, but I'm pretty sure he called me a bitch because the next thing I knew, I was thrusting my middle finger in the air and screaming "F--- YOU!" at the top of my lungs.

He screamed it back at me, but he didn't shoot me, so all things considered it was a pretty good day at the Kremlin.

By this point, Annabelle was crying hysterically not because of the thunder and lightning but because she was within minutes of really, really, REALLY turning 9 (8:25 a.m., Eastern Standard Time), and she did NOT want to do it under these circumstances. Another guard arrived who cleared the exit, and we were able to make our escape from the Kremlin and as far as Annabelle knows, she turned 9 in the comfort and security of the bus.

We made it back to the hotel just in time to catch a quick shower before heading out to the circus. While they had an elephant and a camel and a few other exotic animals in the lobby for picture-taking purposes, I was relieved to see that the show itself revolved more around clowns and acrobatics than animal acts. They did have horses, dogs, monkeys, and even llamas, but there were no tigers, no elephants, and no dancing Russian bears.

After the circus, we headed back to the hotel to try and catch up on our sleep and get ready for our second full day in Russia.

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