Friday, September 22, 2006

Settling In

By the time I had added some salad and potatoes and water to my piece of Sicilian deep dish pizza, the bill came to $20. Yes, but what price could be put upon the cachet of sitting amidst the old world elegance of the GUM while eating with my plastic Sbarro's knife and fork?

As you might have picked up on by now, I was mightily impressed with present day Moscow. Combined with today's most wonderful weather, it seemed like the cleanest and most wonderful city in the world. Even all the new construction was refined and non-over the top: Somebody on the zoning board was making sure that everything fit in with Moscow's classical look.

Yes, I was well aware that the rest of Russia hasn't caught up. But to use this to deny what I saw around me would be like saying that Santa Monica or Sausalito weren't all that because California also contains Fresno.

And it wasn't just a tiny elite who were enjoying all this newfound prosperity. The rulers of Russia, after all, had figured the Chinese lesson: When given a choice between 'political freedom' and cash, people will take the cash every time. And, as in China, people on the street certainly seemed as 'free' as anyone in Fresno. Nor did I get the sense that anyone gave a flying crap about 'democracy' or other such slogans.

Unlike China, however, Russia doesn't need to go to the trouble to manufacture and ship all those outdoor swing sets. All they have to do is pump oil. And the most delicious irony is that now that we've finally achieved the coveted status of paper tiger, we seem to be the only ones in the world who don't know that they have the oil and we don't. As Nelson on the Simpsons would say, "Ha, ha!"

To continue my political line: If you want to be paranoid (which I don't), forget about Iran and worry about Russia. They already have more nukes than they can even find, and they might not know or care much about Western Ideals, but they are only too aware of what it feels like to have been taken advantage of when you're down.

Anyhow, now that I had contributed my expert insight and finished my meal, I exited the GUM, took one long last gawk at St. Basil's, then wandered eastward through some Moscow side streets. The afternoon light was like out of some pale painting and I kept snapping pictures trying to capture it.

When I finally ended up at a Metro station, I went back to the only internet cafe that appeared to be in Moscow and spent two hours filing my report. Then, as if to remind me that perfect days do not last, the computer lost all of my self-important musings of the last two days. Which meant, after I finished exploding, that I had to sit down and laboriously re-compose everything again.

Back to Marina's and bed.

Thursday morning arose colder and cloudier. My first task was to go with Alex to the train station to buy my ticket for Kiev. As we were waiting in line for about a half hour I realized that they don't take Visa and I probably didn't have enough cash on hand. I crossed my fingers.

I usually wouldn't call my regular life charmed. But when I'm on the road I seem to have a travel angel around. I had 1510 rubles on me and the ticket came to 1500.

Now, however, I had to find an ATM so that I could pay 15 year old Alex 300 for his help. Nobody does anything for nothin in the new Russia. But once the ATM spit out the 4 1000 ruble notes we had a new problem, since nobody in the new Russia changes bills for nothin, neither. So I had to go order breakfast. But still the waitress wouldn't change the 1000 until the food arrived and I had paid for it.

Okay. Back to the Moscow subway, which is probably the best in the world. There is a new train every 90 seconds, and everything connects with everywhere. Of course, I'm assuming that you can also read Cyrillic and you don't mind being 300 feet underground. But my three previous Russian weeks were all coming back to me, and, less than 48 hours into it, I was becoming a Muscovite.

I even started looking the part: heavy, drooping eyelids, a sardonic look, and lost in my own world. In fact, other Russians were mistaking me for one of them, and were trying to stop me to ask for directions. I gave them a slight shrug and ignored them.

Since today was grey and interesting, I decided to get a little culture and go to the Tretyakov, one of Moscow's two major art museums. Getting off at the nearest Metro stop, I was of course lost, and no one knew where it was. Nor had anyone thought to have put up informational signs for this major attraction. I finally found it, however, paid my $10 and walked in.

Not to pummel the LP or anything, but I found the Tretyakov less than spectacular. There was too much Sulikov for my taste and not enough Repin. Or too much Repin and not enough Sulikov, I can't remember which. Anyhow, there's a good reason that you haven't heard of those guys. (Actually, there are a couple of great late-19th century Russian painters, but for some reason they didn't have them this time.)

I left the Tretyakov, remembering that I had gone there in 1992. I also remembered that I had gone to the Bolshoi, the Circus, the Zoo, you name it. So I probably didn't need any more Russian culture this time.

I walked north back towards the Kremlin, this time turning left when I got to the Moscow River. Once again I was reminded that golden moments are only, well, moments. Now the city was like Western Europe in that it was chill, overcast, damp, and filled with smoggy traffic.

I headed towards the new Assumption Cathedral, one of the most humungous churches in the world. It was built to replace a giant swimming pool, which was built to replace a slightly less humungous church that Stalin had torn down in his atheistic zeal. Who's laughing now, comrade?

Walking inside, I found it to be not quite as Donald-Trump-Builds-A-Church as I had been led to believe. Still, the wall to ceiling paintings that covered the interior (which is what Russian churches do) were much closer to Twentieth Century Sunday School than Fourteenth Century Devotional. And I had been hoping for some pews so that I could both pray and rest my feet, but, it being a Russian church, I was out of luck.

Back out on the street I wandered north for about a mile until I got to the Arbat, Moscow's famous pedestrian/souvenir stall street. I stepped into one of the city's many Starbucks clones and bought a $4 cup of coffee. Mighty fine brew.

Legs rested and fully caffeinated, I took a relaxing stroll up and down the mostly refurbished nineteenth century Arbat cobblestones and buildings. I was feeling pleasant again, and the weather was co-operating, with some blue back in the sky and exquisite pale blue afternoon atmosphere.

It was now around 4 and there was some tourist day left, so I hopped back on the Metro and went outwards around six long stops. I wanted to check out what outer Moscow was like.

A also wanted to check out the VVnH, which I knew from before was a giant permanent 'World's Fair'kind of exhibition park that the Soviet Union had built back in the Seventies so as to display the glories of Socialism. After all, Communism should at least have some nostalgia value.

The first view wasn't encouraging. The 300 foot tall soaring aluminum monument to the Soviet space program had graffiti scrawled all along its bottom, and the grass was overgrown all around it.

Across the street the exhibition park was in slightly better shape, with the monumental arches and ornate exhibit halls standing forlornly and offset by tacky advertising and amusement parks. Still, it was a pretty popular place, and crowds were milling.

I noticed a 300 foot tall ferris wheel about a half mile away and started towards it. What better reminder of the Soviet Union, when just about every town had a ferris wheel, and where that was about it for entertainment in just about every town?

Soviet pricing was no longer in effect, however. $6 for one rotation! Even the ferris wheel on the Champs Elysee hadn't cost near that. And as I arose to the top, the view of somewhat highrise Moscow stretching out forever in every direction, while interesting, didn't in any way compare with Paris, either.

Moscow was one very expensive city, right up there with London, and almost to Tokyo. I remembered the Soviet Union and its three cent ferris wheel rides with fond nostalgia.

Then back into the center city, back to the internet, back to Marina's and back to bed.

I awoke on Friday with a new and final Russian task to accomplish. Since I was now staying in Moscow for a third day, I also now had to register my visa, which would have been routine if I had been staying at a hotel, but for which I now had to pay Marina $40, so that she could go to an agent, who would...

Anyhow, Marina had to have a xerox of my Russian visa to be able to do this, so she came with me to Beloruskaya station to do that. Now, however, I learned that other side of Russians, not giving out info. They don't ask for it, either. For some reason Marina, who lived three minutes away from this gigantic commercial conglomeration, and who made her living doing these things, didn't have a clue as to where to find a xerox machine in this area. Nor would she stop and ask anyone. I finally found a place to have breakfast, while she took the subway three stops to where she knew there was a xerox machine, xeroxed the visa, then came all the way back to give my passport to me so that if, on the off chance a Russian cop stopped me this afternoon, I wouldn't be screwed.

That taken care of, I headed back to the internet, since my next few days were to be hectic, and I really needed to get myself caught up. Even if I'm the only one reading this.

It's sort of like an existential statement of existential meaninglessness.

So now it's down to Red Square for a final long afternoon of old Kremlin church gawking, St Basil's gawking, etc. Then tonight it's me and my bags over to Kiev station and the soon to be seen wonders of the Ukraine.


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