I have stood on the same ground where once walked Catherine the Great, Ivan the Terrible, Stalin the Butcher and Khrushchev the Shoeless.
Chris and I arrived in Moscow in time for dinner and a brisk walk along and under the Russian capitol’s wide boulevards to – gasp – The Kremlin. Standing in Red Square at the epicenter of the once-labeled Evil Empire, I was overwhelmed with…. underwhelmness. I was completely filled with indifference and swept away with ennui. I expected awe at the architectural structure or at least a tingly creepy feeling from the power structure it represented. Instead I thought: Is that all there is? Everything I saw looked so familiar it didn’t seem exotic. There were no surprises and I felt, how can I describe it - all too safe. There was no sense of adventure, no drama, no real feeling of foreign-ness. Definitely no lingering threat of The Bomb which so underscored my childhood understanding of all-things-Russian back in the 60s.
What was I expecting here? I don’t know. But the Muscovites look and dress so normally - the streets, stores and maybe not a Starbucks, but at least a coffee shop on every corner. It was just so typical of any large city in the world. Yawn pie with snore sauce. Ho-hum.
And Red Square? Well really, whatsup with that, dare I say it - gaudy – St. Basil’s. In person it’s much smaller than I imagined and the overriding thought in my head standing there was…. Disneyland. I felt like I was at Epcot viewing some scaled-down over-stylized version of the real thing. It’s how I feel looking at Cinderella’s Castle after having been to Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria on which the Disney model was based. With it’s profusion of cutesy onion-domes and REALLY outlandish colors, St. Basil’s looks like a part of the It’s a Small World ride.
OK, OK. So maybe I’m being harsh and maybe my expectations are a bit too high these days and maybe I’ve grown a bit travel-jaded and skeptical of the usual tourist attractions. Then again maybe St. Basil’s is really some sort of sneaky communist plot to subvert our sense of good taste! I did enjoy our tour of the Moscow markets and subway system. And it’s probably telling that it didn’t upset me in the least when the big, stern Russian policeman yelled at us and demanded to see our documents (I carry photocopies of our passport IDs and Visas at all time and leave the originals in the hotel safe). With all our camera gear we are a spectacle, try as we might to be inconspicuous, and I understand some places and all military don’t relish being immortalized on film. Apparently ALL places in Moscow fall into that category - oopsy. But hey, we’ve been escorted out of better (and scarier) places than that. It was no big deal, just a lot of yelling and violent hand gestures. He never touched us or his gun.
I also enjoyed trading scraps of language with our driver, who, as I found out later, understood a lot more English than he initially let on. Reminder to self: Never, never, never talk about (ah-hem) ‘personal stuff’ in the backseat of a car in a foreign country – again.
You can learn a lot about a culture by reading what they consider the most useful phrases in a translation book.
For example, closely following the usual hello, goodbye, thank you, how much is it and where’s the toilet, I found:
Let’s hurry to the hall for a smoke.
Where are you taking me?
In my purse there was…
I am a venturesome gentleman and I stand the slots beautifully.
It is not tasty.
And my favorite:
I’m impatiently waiting for the trained animal act.
Obviously I have been looking in all the wrong places for a good time here.
More later from Siberia.