No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits, otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby – so helpless and ridiculous
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
This is usually the first question.
Last year, pretending I’m a subscriber to such ideas, fate smiled on me – a couple of Russian girls, Jen and Ksusha, moved into my flat for the last few weeks of their holiday/English course. We got on like a house on fire and stayed in touch, did Edinburgh Hogmanay together and I decided to go visit them. I’d resolved to attempt to tackle the Russian language come the end of their stay (why not, eh?) – it’s not going too badly!
I’ve never really had holidays, it’s not something we did as a family. So it seemed like a good time to fix that.
I finally went on a plane!
On departure day I was more excited than scared, I think.
I was suddenly taken by a desire to grab a copy of the Metro lying on the tube seat a couple of stations from Terminal 4 and thumbed through it, then lol’d upon discovering (a short version of) my whiny email printed on the letters page! Fame.
Actually quite liked wandering around Heathrow once through check-in (I did not enjoy watching my suitcase disappear); it’s just a mall really.
Got my two giant bottles of Bailey’s as planned (handily on offer so even more ridiculously cheap) for myself and the girls.
Camera at the ready (specifically requested window seat so I could finally see clouds from the opposite side and look down on tiny houses) and somewhat desperately thumbing my Russian text book, I spent a minute working out how to undo the seatbelt once I’d closed it and enjoyed reading (or attempting to anyway) the safety signs and things – with Аэрофлот (Aeroflot) everything’s bilingual you see. Well, they add a bit of English in at least.
Turns out flying is rather fun (apart from checking in/passport control – that’s a bit stressful but no doubt easier when you’re used to it). Stuff Alton Towers, take-off FTW!
I even slept a bit, somewhat surprisingly. But I did wake up in time to see some Russia-from-the-air; with the coniferous forests and amazingly colourful buildings of a totally different architectural style. My distance from home started to hit me then, I think.
Landing at Шереметьево (Sheremet’evo) airport, north-west of Moscow, I found my inner voice exclaiming
I. Am. In. Russia!!!
Having only been abroad once previously, to the South of France by car (not counting a ferry or two to Calais), this took a while to process. Including seeing cyrillic everywhere; having talked about going for some 8 months and learning some language then finally arriving – it was exciting and a bit scary.
Overall my first foray into air travel went surprisingly smoothly apart from not knowing about these immigration card things. Queueing for passport control was a bit stressful anyway and I managed to go through just about last, then got an angry
This immigration ticket. You have it? [er, no] Why not?? Over there, you bring, I help you
From the lady at the desk. Perhaps I was asleep on the plane when they told us about this, if they bothered to at all. For a minute I totally panicked that I was lacking an essential document and wouldn’t be let in at all. But it was ok.
My suitcase turned up (just about last, since I was about the fourth person to check in at Heathrow) and I met Jen outside, who was stressing that my flight hadn’t landed at all or she was at the wrong terminal.
We got offered taxis about 50 times on our way to the free bus to the express train into the centre. I laughed that Scorpions was on the bus’ radio; yes, definitely Russia.
On the express train, which is very nice and highly recommended, to Belarussky station in the centre they have little TVs with calming nature programmes on. I found it very amusing that I actually had an opportunity to use one word I really didn’t think I’d need; слон (elephant).
My other ex-flatmate and old travel buddy met us in the centre and gave me some balloons! So I felt totally inconspicuous on my first metro journey…
Being a tourist
Not something I’m accustomed to.
Красный Плошадь (the Red Square) obviously had to be our first stop. Felt really sorry for people dressed as Homer and Spiderman sitting outside when it was around 35 degrees.
I never really thought I’d see St Basil’s cathedral. We had a puzzle of it at home when I was little and I’d been fascinated by it back then. Quite surreal, boiling hot. Soon retreated to Alexander Gardens along the Kremlin wall.
Sitting on the grass in the shade seemed like a good idea; everyone was doing it. However, the militia then walked along blowing whistles and shouting at people; you’re not allowed to sit on the grass. Problem is, the signs telling you this are a) only in Russian (not an issue for me but likely is for many tourists) and b) facing one direction; not the one we came through.
Still, it’s >800m long and further down even more people were sprawled so did the same. Birds panting and sitting in puddles tells you it’s a good idea to seek the shade if nothing else does.
Rather than go through each day like a diary (as I went for 2 weeks, it’d end up way too long), I’ll try to remember things that stood out.
Russia’s a bit of a mystery to most of us further ‘West’, I think, if not to everyone else, even some Russians themselves! I never really learned much about it growing up and the stereotypes seem to remain the overriding impression for most;
– freezing cold
– scary army
– beautiful people.
Some of which are of course true; stereotypes often arise from facts, but certainly not all.
It was unbelievably hot – it’s a land of extremes but not just unidirectionally. Sure people get drunk, but hey, this is England! They were just as shocked by how busy our pubs are by midday.
I saw no bears.
The army is quite frightening and the people often are beautiful, but many in that kind of Californian, overworked sort of way (Jen and I nicknamed them the shiny Russians – it’s simply a competition, one many of us wouldn’t dare to enter) but also people have a tendency not to look after themselves; life expectancy is shockingly low, especially for men (smoke+drink), and the let-yourself-go idea does seem prevalent. But again, the UK (US even more) is also prone to this.
Stuff that’s the same
I’m starting to feel that, in the words of the great Dave Gahan, People Are People – wherever you are. London is one of the great multicultural cities, which I am appreciating nowadays (after the initial culture shock) and my close friends are from all over the place. Attitudes, tastes and behaviours do vary but in the end we’re just Homo sapiens and I think the similarities far outweigh the differences.
There’s a lot about Russia (at least the people I’ve met and the bits I’ve seen, which admittedly is a teeny tiny sample!!) that is familiar and welcoming.
The great passions are held in high esteem; music, art (much more than us, in fact, especially poetry), drink and food (though I’m yet to be convinced on Russian cuisine!). Dancing, fims, games – fun in general. Work hard, play hard.
I was inexplicably excited to see Ducktales on a TV in a café on the Арбат (Arbat) – a Moscow equivalent of Oxford Street, I suppose – and amused by all the cheesy 90’s UK pop drifting out of shops.
Sadly they’re also very fond of some of the crappier aspects of ‘civilised’ society like McDonald’s. Can’t win ’em all. Still, we did enjoy their large drinks in the summer heat, being about 2x the size they are here and cheap.
Stuff that’s different
First, positive things. The Metro, but I’ll go into that in detail later.
I liked that all the places we ate at had toothpicks. Why don’t we? Sort it out, eateries.
You can buy sweetcorn from hotdog-type stands around the place. I bloody love sweetcorn. We also need to do this.
I got the impression it was quieter. I don’t know if that’s true. Maybe because everything’s huge, (naturally, in the biggest country of the world!)… maybe people generally feel less need to shout at each other in close proximity, which is refreshing.
There’s a lot more open space; squares, expanses of pavement, 4-lane roads through the centre of town. It can make you feel a bit small, but it’s pleasant. We don’t do it; if there’s a flat area, it either needs to be a car park or have something quite tall built on it to make efficient use of the space.
Both good and bad is the different kind of politeness and behaviour towards people you don’t know. It can feel, particularly in Moscow I think, that people are being really rude and cold towards you. They’re more closed. It’s probably better described simply as not putting on a mask of friendliness that’s insincere; more our manner. If you smile at strangers, they’ll probably think you’re mad.
In a way I think it’s better than pretending to like someone you don’t know (or even actively dislike). The French are similar, but move more fully into the rudeness territory 😉 but actually I quite like smiling at people I don’t know, especially if it’s reciprocated. I missed the common courtesies a bit (apologising for bumping into someone, that kind of thing), but had been warned about it previously.
Also I can’t decide if I like the parks more or not. Mostly you can’t sit on the grass if it’s cut but are provided with benches (one woman thought it was fine to prevent us sitting in the shade by having her catalogue sit next to her instead. Biatch.) – the big spaces are often left as woodland. Better for wildlife, nice to walk through, not so good if you want to sit and chill out.
Next, things I’m not a fan of.
The buses. Often somewhat falling to bits, greenhouses on wheels (thought I might pass out a few times and nearly burned myself on the leather seat by the window!). Still, they’re cheap.
One probably shouldn’t have water from the tap, so a major expenditure was bottled drinks. On the upside, I’m now very confident with
Здравствуйте, (у Вас есть) негазированная вода, пожалуйста (?)
(Hello, [do you have] still water, please [?])
The police can be… enthusiastic. Quite scary was seeing one officer in the metro station (every station has its милиция) sprint down an escalator, pushing people out of the way, to grab a kid no older than 16 and escort him to the bottom then all the way back up for not paying. Still, I did avoid getting arrested (as people kept telling me to before I left!).
Still as was pointed out, we recently had a guy shot 8 times in the head for (allegedly) running in a tube station. So it cold be worse.
People don’t really pay that much attention to red lights so you need your wits about you at crossings (doubly difficult for us Brits since the traffic’s coming from the other direction).
Probably one of the worst things is smoking prevalence. Reminiscent of how it used to be here, I’d say most people smoke – young and old. Partly because a pack costs less than £1 and it’s likely a slimming aid for a lot of the girls. Also there’s no indoor ban yet so expect your coffee/dinner/night out to be somewhat ruined by fumes. Makes you appreciate the wonders of the ban here (as I do anyway).
The Moscow metro is famous for good reason. It is absolutely stunning; the stations are beautiful, many are works of art in themselves; marble-clad, statues and chandeliers, mosaics, gold, bronze. It’s cool in the summer heat, the trains are spacious and the system actually makes more sense than ours (in that stations only have 2 platforms, one for each direction; only one line runs through each station).
It’s deeper than our tube and the escalators are really long. Usually pleasantly relaxing, occasionally dull. I kept myself busy trying to understand the adverts.
It always seemed strange to be enjoying it so much; in London, the tube is rarely somewhere you want to be, especially when it’s boiling hot. Generally it’s neither relaxing nor pretty (but it is the oldest metro system so I’ll give us a bit of slack). Since I’m used to our tube now, the combination of feeling at home as a result, refreshing temperatures and stunning interiors caused the metro to be one of my favourite things.
Night-time in Moscow
There’s a song whose tune I’ve been familiar with for many years (roughly translated as the above heading, due to it being in one of my keyboard books), but have only recently started to learn the lyrics to, about the magic of the city after dark.
Ah and a half-English version with pictures. The Red Army choir version’s rather nice too.
A friend of Ksusha’s very kindly drove us around from 2-6am one night/morning and now I understand the song even better.
In a much more bearable 20-something degrees, we went to Red Square and the cathedral (which you’re not allowed into if you’re wearing shorts, be aware…), the sun came up and lit the river orange. Picturesque. I highly recommend doing this if you go, if possible.
Царицыно is breathtaking from the minute you walk through the main gate. Awesome in the real sense, not the American “hey, this sundae is awesome!” sense.
“Does it remind you of St. James’ Park?” asked my Siberian friend (accompanying me also as a tourist) – ummm, no. Not even a bit.
Great photos and info here.
You walk over a bridge to a little island in the lake, which is covered with fountains that ‘dance’ to music (from classical pieces to chillout numbers and the X Files theme). It feels like a film with the sky blue, bright green grass and trees, water all around.
Crossing another bridge to the opposite bank, up a hill, you suddenly come to buildings that are straight out of some fairy tale. Bridges and a palace, ruins of the previous one in the centre, archway to the wooded park behind.
In the woods are a few constructions that both fit with the surroundings and stand out as a bit odd. A ‘ruined tower‘ (that was actually built as it is) from which you can look out, almost up in the canopy of the trees. Pavilions of bright yellow and white pointing you to the best views over the lake.
No swimming (but people doing so regardless – as my friend said, in Russia, there are many rules – people just don’t care!).
The girls and I took an overnight train to St Pete and stayed for a few days; being absolutely knackered and hobbling around with a limp (muscles gave up in my left foot, lots of pain) plus getting a little bit of rubbish sleep… I was dead on my feet! Still, it’s a pretty place, moreso than Moscow, and the people are much friendlier.
Went and had an X-ray to check my foot wasn’t broken or something serious and just about managed a little conversation with the nurse, which was nice. And I got to keep it – cool souvenir!
Saw all the main landmarks in the city (including via a nice boat tour on the last evening) but missed out on the Peterhof, sadly. Watched the bridges open in the small hours – while I don’t fully understand the fascination , the atmosphere makes it quite exciting (had some people with bongos and poi behind us that were very entertaining), the night views are brilliant and the weather was lovely, even up there by Finland.
It’s probably worth going for more than a few days and getting some decent rest to really appreciate the city. Being able to walk more than half a mile an hour helps too.
Actually I could retitle that Reasons to Return.
We didn’t really go out – I have not experienced the Moscow nightlife! Combination of walking all day = dead, friends being busy and also tired/lightweights (or hungover, Rus!!). So that’s on the cards for the future I think, suggestions from friends of not-expensive but good clubs (thanks, Charlie).
I didn’t drink enough vodka. We bought a teeny bottle but I practically had to beg for a partner in crime, again for the above reasons. So just the one shot (and a bit mixed with juice stuff). Though we did finish 1.5 bottles of Bailey’s so not too bad there.
I need to try more food. Did not test Борщ (borsch; beetroot soup) for example, though I did have a Блин (blin; pancake!) – still prefer my simple sugar and lemon combo. Amusing thing is that “блин!” is the equivalent of “damn” or similar, so if auto-translating some speech, this is why ‘pancake’ comes up a lot (which had me bemused for a while).
I didn’t see all the Metro stations so want to sit on the circle line and take photos of all the best ones sometime.
Haven’t been to Gorky Park, even if there isn’t that much to do there. Needs to be done.
Didn’t go in any museums (too sunny and nice to be inside. Plus it’d be more interesting when I can read more of the info).
Sadly our Tsaritsyno visit ended prematurely with a somewhat frantic rush back to the flat as I found my wallet missing from my bag in the queue to get some lunch. Turned out I just left it there in my sleepy morning stupor, fortunately. Now it’s kinda funny but at the time I was panicking/upset/angry/embarrassed.
I really want to go back to that park sometime, maybe in the first Autumn/Winter snow as the pictures look amazing. Also plenty of other estates/parks to be seen.
Didn’t really have time to see any of the Moscow region either; Ksusha lives a bit outside the city so need to visit her home and there’s plenty of interesting/pretty stuff around.
Well I joked with people that maybe I wouldn’t come back, or be convinced that moving out there would be a good idea. Honestly, I haven’t totally changed my mind. I think that, like living in most places, once you find your niche – things you really enjoy (food, places, people) – then it’s easy to let the city make you happy. It’s taken 2 years for me to find that in London anyway.
I do recommend flying out in the evening; watching Moscow from the air at dusk, all the gold-topped churches glinted in the low sun. Plus, 4 hours later, coming into London at the same sort of time – Greenwich has never looked so inviting!
I thought I’d be desperate to get back after 2 weeks; on the last long holiday I had with my parents to the South of France, that was certainly the case. My brother even did go home early!
But in fact I was quite sad to leave. I miss the crazy crossing outside Jen’s local metro station and the greengrocer lady, the language, the Metro, my friends.
Absence did teach me that I do actually love London now (and England will always be my home). I wish it’d happened sooner, but at least I have some time left to enjoy it.
Perhaps the girls and I will go to Prague for New Year this time…
I could write much more about places I went and stuff (including Paris 3 days after I got back!!) but this is already obscenely long and probably only family have made it this far. Adieu!