Thursday, September 21, 2006

Moscow 2006: The Re-Mix

We got into Yaroslavsky Station right on schedule at 2:30. I got all my baggage together and headed out for the big city.

My 'homestay' hostess, Marina, was supposed to have sent her 15 year old son Alex to meet me. This was so special, since I'd never been greeted before with someone holding a 'Folz' sign. But

No one was there. Well, I wasn't all that surprised, having dealt with Russia before. Still, I walked ever so slowly towards the exit, waiting for someone to come up and say: Excuse, please...

Nope. Oh well, I'd find her place by myself. I exited the station and found myself in a large plaza all of a sudden surrounded by Moscow. The weirdness of it all came back in a rush. Okay, where was the Metro sign? Come on, it's got to be here somewhere.

About 200 yards away I found it. Then inside, buy a ticket, maneuver my stuff down the long, long escalator, and take the train a couple of stops over to Beloruskaya. So far, so good.

Out on the street again and ask for Butirsky Val. Over there. Now to walk up it until I find the long building with the number 28 on it. Here it is. Except now things start to fall apart.

I actually had been given two addresses, and, having been in Moscow before, I assumed that Marina's actual apartment was on some side street right near to 28 Butirsky Val. So just stop to ask somebody...

The problem with that idea was that, as opposed to just about anywhere else in the world, where an obvious tourist, especially a befuddled one, is immediately helped by any and all who drop what they're doing to go over and be helpful, that's not how the Russkies operate. Nope, mostly they all act surly AND ignore you. And even the few that do help do so kind of surreptitiously, as if they don't want anyone else to see their kindness. So far it seemed like the same old Moscow.

What's more, nobody seemed to have a clue as to what sidestreet they were on. What's more, even when I finally got someone to call Marina's phone number, she didn't answer.

It looked like I might have to go to Plan B, which involved schlepping back to the Metro and going out around ten kilometers to where the Hotel Ismaylovo with its 8000 beds could sell me a cheap room for $100 a night. But I had one last idea, which was to go back to 28 Butirsky Val.

There, around the back at Entrance 2 and Floor 3, there was an apartment 39. Trouble was, nobody was home. I sat down in the stairwell and decided to give it another 15 minutes.

And I was just getting up to trudge on out to the Ismaylovo when Alex showed up. He had some story about his mother telling him to wait at Wagon 1 instead of my Wagon 11, but I suspect that, being a 15 year old boy, he had spaced it out and was now making stuff up. Whatever. At least I now had my room.

Actually, it turned out that I had an entire small apartment to myself, all for $40 a night. I pulled my stuff in and prepared to fall down on my new bed.

Except that Alex needed to get me to pay up so that he could go eat for the first time in 24 hours. So I trotted out with him back to the street, sans daypack, and back towards the Metro stop, where there was an ATM.

ATM found and rent paid, I now decided that I had better well eat while I was at a commercial area. Then I realized: No daypack! I felt so liberated. I found some food, and then, feeling lucky, I decided to take the subway one stop over to where Alex had vaguely indicated there was an internet cafe.

Intuitively making all the right turns, I actually found it. Not only that, but when I was finished I actually found my way back to Beloruskaya and then to 28 Butirsky Val. I celebrated by taking a shower and going to bed.

The next morning, refreshed, I set out to discover the new Moscow. For it had been evident in my quick rambles of the night before that this city was far different from what I had seen in 1992. Back then there had been just the faint stirrings of commerce: Russia's first McDonald's, mostly long, long streets of dreadful and dreary, mostly closed Soviet 'stores' occasional workers'cafeterias. I remember taking a whole day trying to track down the one store in the city that was supposed to have a voltage converter for sale, and then when I finally found it it was no longer there.

In particular, I remember vividly that across the street from Red Square you had to walk through a block long gauntlet of desperately poor old people desperately trying to sell every last possession--even if it was one old shoe--in order to survive.

The only real commerce consisted of little kiosks clustered around Metro stations, all selling not much more than cigarettes, Pepsis, and, when they were in stock, potato chips. Kind of what's still available at the Siberian train platforms.

The kiosks are still there, but now their product lines have greatly expanded, with everything from shwarma to Captain Potato. Much more importantly, the entire city has exploded with every kind of store and restaurant and club that you would find in any prosperous Western European city. And the Western European comparison should be stressed: unlike the early Nineties, the sleazy hoodlum/mafia vibe is completely gone.

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