[This week I'm blogging my July 2008 trip to Estonia and Russia. Go here for an intro and previous posts. In this entry: Moscow.]
Before this trip, I had been to Moscow once, when I was 8. My parents, grandparents and I came here for an interview with officials at the American embassy a few months before we immigrated to the U.S. It was January, bitterly cold and snowing. My parents took me to see the Kremlin, pointing this way and that to the famous landmarks. My dad carried me through the Red Square. I closed my eyes to shield them from the blowing snow.
This time, my dad and I head to Moscow on our own. My parents hate this city the way some Americans hate New York. It’s loud, rude, expensive and dirty. Muscovites and St. Petersburg natives have always been rivals, I learn. Still, we’re unlikely to visit this part of the world any time in the near future, and Moscow is on my to-do list. My dad, the native St. Petersburg resident, pulls the short straw on this one.
We take the overnight train to Moscow and get in at 5 a.m. Just past 6 a.m., we’re at the Kremlin. The Red Square is nearly deserted, besides the occasional office worker and packs of stray, sad-eyed dogs.
Everything's closed and we walk around aimlessly. On our third lap, two cops flag us down. They’re young and they’re drunk. They ask to see our passports. They study our train ticket stubs to and from St. Petersburg. They look at that vitally important "registration" document it took hours to get in St. Petersburg.
Our papers are in the order, they finally admit, but walking around this early in the morning is unusual for tourists, they say. It's downright suspicious! They are, to their credit, surprisingly jovial. I’m guessing it’s the end of their shift. Now they want to chat.
Where are we from in the U.S.?
Near Chicago, my dad says.
Chicago? The hell you say. One of them whistles. Chicago is impressively far away.
Now it’s our turn to ask questions. Could they recommend a bus tour of the city?
Oh, you don’t want to take the bus in Moscow, they say. The traffic jams are awful! You'll be stuck in traffic for hours.
Traffic jams are pretty bad in St. Petersburg, my father says.
Ours are much worse! they reassure us proudly.
We wish each other well and go on our way. The sun has risen, and the Red Square is slowly filling with tourists.
We go on a tour of the Kremlin (overpriced and underwhelming).
We take that bus tour of the city, and don’t get stuck in traffic.
We go to Arbat, the famous pedestrian shopping street. These days, everything is under construction here; you have to shout over jackhammers to be heard. My dad points to the nearby American embassy. He sneaked in there sometime in 1989 to grab an application for asylum in the U.S. You had to wait for the Soviet guard to turn away, he says. If you were spotted, you could get arrested and lose your job.
The good old days! Now, it seems like no one’s excited about America anymore. The U.S. hasn’t lived up to its promise here. People are hungry for Euros, not dollars. (I have to note that a few months ago George Soros claimed that America’s economic collapse is comparable to that of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.)
There's a lot to think about. It’s hot, and we’re tired of talking over the din. We go to Teremok (Russian fast food chain) on Arbat to eat blini and drink kvass--rye bread beer (photo below). It's cheap, cold and delicious. We head back to the station to catch our train back to St. Petersburg. A few days later, we'll head back home.
Next: A few notes on food.