Thursday, December 30, 2010

All Aboard The Moscow Metro

I never thought I would encounter a more mind-boggling metro system than the one that runs through Tokyo, but then yesterday I arrived in Moscow.  I think I can now say with authority that there is no more confusing place on Earth than deep within the bowels of the Moscow Metro.  It’s probably not all that bad if you can read Cyrillic and otherwise have no particular place to be, but today I had a couple of important errands to run at two different places around Moscow, and only the following, palm-sized metro map to guide me:

I think you can guess what kind of a day I had.

I suppose the language barrier creates a different kind of challenge for me, but I can’t imagine that riding the metro here can ever be easy, even for the average Muscovite.  I’ve read that more than nine million people use the Moscow Metro daily, and today it felt like they were all trying to board my train at once.   There were so many people trying to shove their way on, at one point the train noticeably rocked back and forth on the track.  And when I say people shove, that’s no exaggeration, as when today a woman, apparently desperate not to wait the five minutes for the next train, placed both of her hands on my back and—seemingly with all her might—pushed me forward so she could squeeze into the few square inches of space left before the doors closed.  This startled me, and without thinking I blurted out “Jesus Christ!” which only served to turn a highly-chaotic situation into a more colorful one.

Not only is the metro overcrowded, it’s also brimming with people obviously under the influence, like the totally-inebriated man who stumbled on me as he entered the train at one of the stops on the Red Line.  Often, and especially during rush hour, there is barely a millimeter of personal space separating one passenger from the next.   Making matters worse, the little breathable air inside the train is constantly permeated with a stomach-turning mixture of stale-alcohol breath and rank body odor.  I rode the rails armed with a pack of CVS-brand moist wipes and my Purell hand-sanitizer, but I probably could have done better with a mask and some air freshener.

Before I ever set foot on the metro here, several knowledgeable people warned me, simply, to “watch out.”   This was probably unnecessary considering my already-heightened sense of paranoia, but I suppose one can never be too hyper-vigilant, especially when one is carrying an expensive MacBook Pro inside a backpack amid potential thieving gangsters on a sardine-packed foreign metro.  Of course I remained constantly on the lookout, obsessively guarding my person and things against prying hands, and every so often giving my abdomen a furtive fingering to ensure that my hidden money belt was still safe and secure beneath my jeans.  And—just to be extra cautious—I cut no one slack in terms of level of suspicion; not even the otherwise innocent-looking Babushkas at whom I would cast sidelong glances that said, “Don’t even think about it, Granny.”

I realize I've said a few unflattering things about the Moscow Metro, but I don’t mean to impugn it in its entirety.  In fact, many guidebooks advise that it is a tourist attraction in and of itself, and for 26 rubles a ride (approximately .86 cents), it’s a great value for those—like me—who enjoy soaking up the local flavor.   The beauty of its architecture alone is really something to behold, as is the art on display, including this mural of Lenin (at least I think it's Lenin), juxtaposed next to a fast-food stand. 

I learned as well that there are many good and helpful people working and traveling within the metro who are willing to assist a clueless stranger from America.  In the end, I got where I was going still possessed of all of my things, and ready to give it another go tomorrow for my first visit to Red Square.

And for those who have been paying close attention, I want to tell you that Alla's coat has now become my coat, and for this I am extremely grateful considering I arrived in Moscow yesterday in what I would describe as a blizzard.   At the moment it is hovering between 8 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and I don't think a sweater-on-top-of-a sweater would have quite cut it.  And finally, still no word on my own coat, which I'm hoping Alla will like; that is, if it ever does arrive in St. Petersburg.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

To Russia Sans Coat

I don’t know how a self-proclaimed travel guru goes to Russia in the freezing winter without bringing along a coat, but somehow I managed to do it.   I realized it was missing from among my things just before I entered the security line at Tampa Airport.  I sat for a long moment in disbelief, alternately racking my brain and rummaging through my bags.  I knew the coat was on my arm sometime just before I left my brother’s house that morning, and I couldn’t imagine what went wrong.

By the time I reached Philly the mystery was solved.  In a between-flights phone call, my sister-in-law broke the news that the coat was draped over the back of one of her dining room chairs.  I must have put it down there when, at the last moment, I went to the kitchen for a slice of homemade pumpkin bread to take with me on the plane.  I boarded the next flight, and kicked myself all the way to my next connection in Switzerland. 

Somewhere between Zurich and St. Petersburg, I settled into the reality that soon I’d be arriving with nothing but a Target-brand, V-neck sweater to provide extra protection from the harsh Russian winter.  I tried to relax, but the in-flight monitor kept flashing the arrival temperature in St. Petersburg (5 below Celsius) like a cruel reminder to the dummy in seat 27-C who forgot her coat. 

I passed the time studying the somewhat-skeletal directions from St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport to my hostel in the city center.  I was to catch a “special bus” from the airport, but the directions failed to specify which one, or where this bus could be found.  The bus would supposedly take me to the metro, where I should find the line that would take me to my stop at “Gostiny Dvor,” after which I would need to walk several-hundred meters down two hard-to-pronounce streets before reaching my bed for the night.

We landed around 2:30 in the afternoon.  I did not learn until the next day—when I awoke at 10:00 a.m. to darkness—that one can nearly count on one hand the number of available daylight hours during the winter here.  By the time I passed the inspection of the seriously-unfriendly woman behind the immigration window, retrieved my belongings, exited customs, withdrew Russian rubles from the ATM, broke the large bills into smaller ones for use on the impending bus and metro rides, had a tinkle in the WC, and learned more about the “special bus” from the barely-English-speaking representative at tourist information, it was closing in on 4:00 p.m., and twilight was yielding to nightfall.

I emerged from the airport wearing nothing but a sweater-on-top-of-sweater and caught my first, shocking blast of the bitter Russian air.  I had no choice but to keep moving.  I spotted the No. K-3 marshrutka, or Russian mini-bus, some distance up the curb.  I paid 27 rubles to the driver and, in the process, discovered that neither he nor anyone else in the vicinity spoke a lick of English.  I indicated “Moskovskaya” to the fur-wrapped woman sitting next to me, and when we approached the station 30-minutes or so later, she pointed and gestured for me to get off.

I descended a set of slippery stairs, purchased a metro token from another woman behind a window, shoved my bags and myself through the turnstile, and stepped onto the overcrowded Blue Line.  I was beginning to feel proud of my foreign navigation skills when the train doors abruptly slammed shut on my backpack, lodging me halfway-in-and-out of the train.  I let out a shriek that immediately caught the attention of the man standing next to me; quickly he pried the doors open and pulled me all the way in.  I thanked him profusely in English while the red-faced embarrassment warmed up my cheeks.

The metro conductor’s announcements were in Russian only, and it was then that I began to understand that “in Russian only” would hamper my ability to do even the simplest of things, like buy a stick of butter, for example.  (I bought pie dough instead.)  It turns out that the language barrier extends not just to words, but also to the entire alphabet.  The Russians use the Cyrillic as opposed to the Roman one; but it may as well be Greek because I’ve been hard pressed to understand much of anything written or said around me for the past 17 days.  In any event, I counted seven stops between Moskovskaya and my intended destination and jumped out—quickly this time.

I wound through a maze of underground tunnels and finally ascended to find a large, grand avenue decked out for the holidays.  That old-familiar travel excitement began to take hold as I began to follow the walking part of the directions.  But soon excitement turned to dread when, after circling the same three-block radius for more than an hour, I could not locate the hostel.  There were no apparent street signs or numbers, and most people who wanted to help me couldn’t.  I started to fear—as once happened in Bolivia—that perhaps the place had just closed down.   

Earlier in the search, I had entered the foyer of an upscale restaurant on a corner of the street where my hostel was supposed to be situated.  The maitre d’ spoke just enough English to confirm that I was on the right street, but she knew nothing about any hostel.  It was dark and turning more frigid by the minute, and I had become exhausted from treading over snowy-sludge covered sidewalks beneath the weight of my bags.  So when 20 minutes more of searching turned up nothing, I returned to the restaurant to beg for further assistance.  I intended to ask the young woman if she wouldn’t mind phoning the hostel for me, but before I could make my plea, I somehow lost my balance and—in a weird, slow motion—fell straight backward onto my backpack and onto the floor.

Now I had become a certified spectacle.  The next thing I knew—to my complete horror—four handsome, Russian men were surrounding me with outstretched hands.  The best looking one spoke perfect English and, after helping me to become upright again, asked how he could assist me.  I stuttered through my predicament the best I could, and within seconds he had the hostel on his cell phone.  He went back and forth with someone on the other end in Russian, and then handed the phone to me.

It was Irina, one of the hostel’s administrators.  She advised me—in English—that the building in which the hostel is situated was directly across the street from the restaurant, and that if I would simply exit the restaurant, turn right, and walk a short distance, I would find myself at the gate, where they would buzz me in.

Humiliated but relieved, I thanked everyone and shot out of the restaurant.  I quickly found the hostel, along with Irina’s mother, Alla, waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs to help me up with my things.   On the way up, Alla kept pointing at me and saying something in Russian.  I asked Oksana, the young administrator who checked me in, to please translate.

Oksana said, “She wants to know, where is your coat?”  

“I forgot to bring it,” I replied, feeling extremely foolish.  Oksana translated my response, and then Alla left the room for a moment.  She reappeared with a mauve-colored, woolen coat and put it on me.  Through more gesturing and translation I understood that Alla was insisting that I wear her coat for as long as I needed during my stay in St. Petersburg. 

Seventeen days have passed and I am still wearing Alla’s coat.  I won’t bore you with the details, but after two or three days of searching in vain for a suitable replacement—and also learning that often Russians are forced to take out “coat-loans” in the same way we take out  car loans, on account of the sheer expense—I thought the sensible solution would be to have my coat sent to me.   You can probably begin to guess how this ends, but I’ll tell you anyway.

Two weeks ago my sister-in-law mailed the coat from a St. Petersburg, Florida post office via Express International service.  It cost about 40 bucks—considerably less than a new coat would cost—and was supposed to take 3-to-5 business days.  Each day I’ve been anxiously awaiting the postman's ring, but nothing.  Then last night I learned through tracking information that the coat did arrive in “Russia” as of 10:00 p.m. on December 26, but it didn’t say precisely where in Russia.  Oksana called the post office while I was out exploring The Hermitage today and when I returned, she delivered the bad news.  The coat was first sent to Moscow, and it left there this morning bound for St. Petersburg.  Meanwhile, I will be leaving St. Petersburg tonight on a train bound for Moscow.  So the coat and I just missed each other.

And now I have to sit and think about what to do.  I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

An un-Orthodox Christmas

I’m interrupting my no-coat-in-Russia post to bring you a live report on Christmas in St. Petersburg.  It’s nearly midnight, and my Christmas is coming to a close eight-to-eleven hours ahead of Christmas celebrations happening back at home.  It seems like a good time to post about Christmas in Russia, so here goes. 

It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas in the run up to my Christmas Eve over here.  I call it “my Christmas Eve” because, in Russia, “their Christmas Eve” – the Russian Orthodox one – is celebrated according to the Julian calendar on January 6, with Christmas Day following on the 7th.  Thankfully the Russians decorate early just like we do, so I spent the last two weeks admiring the lights and trees around town with the Christmas tunes on my I-shuffle complimenting the wintry surroundings.

Then December 24th rolled around and it turned out to be just another day in Russia.  Suddenly the absence of the many things that make Christmas “Christmas” started to hit me hard.  There was no Jimmy Stewart or Rudolph or Charlie Brown or Grinch.  No last-minute dash to the mall; no gift-wrapping frenzy; not even an ounce of the Christmas stress I love to hate.  And worst of all—my family was celebrating in and around the other St. Petersburg—the one in Florida—more than 5,000 miles away.

My Christmas Eve had come in Russia without anyone seeming to notice, but I was determined to press on with the celebration.  I spent the better part of the morning confirming that Russians don’t drink eggnog; in fact, they’ve never heard of such a thing as people drinking a sweet-creamy-egg concoction from a glass.  In the afternoon I wandered the streets in search of something—anything—familiar and preferably American.  I spotted the Golden Arches down a side street and high-tailed it in for a Christmas-Eve cheeseburger and fries.   I felt much better afterward, but I still missed Christmas terribly.

During the day I learned that some Protestants in town were holding a 6:00 p.m. candlelight service at the Lutheran Church of Saint Peter and Paul down the street from my hostel.  It sounded much like some of my Christmas Eves past, so I decided to go.  I turned up to find that the service was all in German, of course, and my quest for the familiar was foiled again.  But somewhere toward the end, I observed two young persons on the altar dressed unmistakably like Joseph and Mary.  They picked up a swaddled baby from a manger, showed him off to some wise men, and just like that it finally felt like Christmas Eve on my Christmas Eve.

I left the church gripped by a newfound Christmas spirit and hurried to a local shopping center to pick up some last-minute gifts for the four women who run my hostel.  I had earlier bought four crinkly-plastic traditional Christmas bags and, when I got “home,” I placed in each one some Christmas candies, a bag of sunflower seeds (their favorite), and a new hair scrunchy, then tied each one with a red ribbon for placement under the tree.  I passed the rest of the evening eating traditional-Ossetian leftovers with newfound friends at the hostel, before hitting the sack in anticipation of a very different Christmas morning.

It turned out to be a glorious one thanks in part to my sister and Western Union.  Earlier in the week I had told my sister of my desire to have a cappuccino at the nearby Grand Hotel Europe—which is very grand indeed—but at 250 rubles ($8-plus US), a cappuccino there was simply out of my price range.  My sister would have none of this talk, so she wired money to me in Russia and insisted that I go have a Christmas cappuccino on her, and while I was at it, I should bring along my Scottish roommate, Janine.  And that’s how Janine and I spent the better part of an hour on this not-really-Christmas-in-Russia-morning:  luxuriating in the Grand Hotel Europe’s Mezzanine Café, sipping vanilla cappuccinos before a delightful fire, and expressing gratitude for both the company and my sister’s generosity.

We exited the hotel to a blanketed-white Christmas—complete with falling snowflakes—bound for the world-renowned Marinsky Theater.  We had tickets for Peter Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, which by chance opened here on “our” Christmas Day.  According to the program, The Nutcracker made its debut at this very opera house in 1892, and now, 118 years later, Janine and I sat watching the ballerinas twirl to well-known sounds of the season.   During intermission we sipped dry champagne and nibbled smoked-salmon toasts, feeling generally pleased with how our Christmas Day had gone thus far, despite being so very far from home.

I’m now inside the warm hostel, wearing a pair of Happy Holidays Christmas-kitty socks (another gift from my sister), and I’ve just savored a candy-cane flavored Tootsie pop that I stowed in my backpack for this very occasion.  Janine and I have been making our rounds of Christmas calls to back home on Skype.  And, just when we thought Christmas was over, a farewell party for a Russian army surgeon and his wife broke out in the common area, along with a traditional Russian meat pie, an apple-and-almond strudel, Italian red wine, and some black tea.

Yes, come to think of it, this un-Orthodox, non-Christmas in Russia turned out to be much better than expected.  Really even seriously cool.  But I really do miss the eggnog, and of course all of you.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Travel Blog About My Slog

Welcome to my blog and thank you for coming.  Over the past weeks I’ve learned that creating a blog is no easy thing.  It’s probably worse for me because I suspect I lack the confidence and grit required to brush off cyberbullies.  I worried that random people would read my blog and leave comments like, “L.C., your blog stinks,” or “obviously you know nothing of Russia or its people.”  And putting aside for the moment they might be right, I’d spend countless hours ruminating before writing another word.  Sooner or later I’d crack and shut it down, but not before convincing myself that I’m a no-good hack of a writer, and who cares anyway what I have to say? 

So, to move forward I’ve struck an internal compromise:  I will let the world read my blog, but I must remain anonymous, and (I think) I’ve disabled the comment function.  Sorry if this disappoints.  And, yes, I realize this makes little sense in light of my burning desire to become a published author known the world over.  But I figure it will be easier to reveal myself and swallow criticism once my writing is validated in the form of a handsome book deal.

I’ve been very encouraged by those who have expressed excitement over my blog; however, I feel I must tamp down expectations a bit from the get-go.  My goal here is not to write the world’s greatest travel blog, though perhaps that is in the range of possibility.  Rather, the blog’s main purpose is to keep interested persons current on my goings-on abroad.  Of course I will aim to please with every post, but my best work must be spent on the travel memoir I’ve been writing about my 2007 tramp across the seven continents.  I’m also writing – in real time – a practical guidebook on how to quit working a real job and travel the world on a budget.  So you see I have a lot on my plate.  

With those caveats in mind, let me begin by telling you how the current journey evolved.  Recently I’d been living in Los Angeles, writing in dribs and drabs, with a full-time lawyer job and Seinfeld re-runs constantly interrupting my flow.  Somewhere in there Oprah announced that her last show would air in September 2011, and it was then that I began to seriously worry.  I knew I had to speed things up if my travel memoir would have any chance of being picked for her club.  I started to work a little harder, but it just wasn’t enough.  So I quit my day job and, on my 40th birthday, took off to travel and write full time.  I’ve got a tiny budget, an extremely tight timeframe, and a better-than-even chance of returning home to someone’s couch a broken failure.  In the meantime, I keep my bar dues current knowing there’s always more money to be made off of other people’s legal problems down the road.

A few have questioned why I felt the need to come all the way to Russia in winter in order to finish writing a book.  I don’t have a real logical answer for that one, except to say that I’m writing about travel and travel inspires me to write.  I had just enough frequent-flyer miles to get to Europe, and since my budget won’t afford long-term travel anywhere west of Poland, I asked the helpful US Airways operator to fly me as far north and east as my miles would take me.  That landed me in St. Petersburg, Russia, where I am today.  Soon I’ll begin working my way toward the cheaper environs of Ukraine, then I’ll wind my way through the Balkans and loop back up to Poland.  (Note:  Before posting this, I Googled “the Balkans” to make double sure I hadn’t confused them with the Baltics; see paragraph 1, supra, re: lack of confidence.)

My looks also played a part in the trip planning.  I’ve got some Hungarian and Czech in me, so I figured that would help me blend with eastern-European locals.  My book-writing plan entails sitting in public cafes for hours on end pounding away on my laptop, and I prefer to do that unmolested by gawkers, touts, and other chatty-curious types.  That part of the plan seems to be working.  As I write this I am at the кофе хауз (I believe that’s Russian-Cyrillic for coffee house) on Nevsky Prospect being ignored by a room full of seemingly unsuspecting Russians. 

A final word on the blog’s title.  For several weeks prior to departure, I obsessed over what to call my blog.  My apartment was littered with post-it notes containing scribblings of potential titles like “A Little Latitude,” “A Broad Abroad,” “I Spy,” “Worldwide Sensation” and so on.  At one point I got stuck on a run of “B” titles, as in “Bulgaria or Bust,” “Bunkbed Breakaway,” and “Backpack Bliss.”  I discovered that many titles had already been usurped by fellow bloggers, while others failed to pass the stupid-test among my blog-title focus group participants.

Then one night on the L.A. freeway, “Travelarity” popped into my head, and I knew.  It captures exactly what I want my blog to focus on, and that is the amusing side of travel.  I was almost ready to go when a friend asked, “what if no Travelarity ensues?”  Of course this gave me pause.  But in the end I recalled what past experience taught me:  something funny always happens along the way.  I hope to prove this up in my next post, entitled: “I Went To Russia In Winter And Forgot My Coat.”