Saturday, July 28, 2007

The saga begins.

This is our hundredth post. How appropriate.

I think it was back in February that Kathie came up with the idea to go to Russia. Would I like to go? Are you kidding me? Are the Weasley kids all red haired?

Having grown up during the Cold War, it had never occurred to me that I might some day have an opportunity to visit the Kremlin, or check out Peter the Great’s log cabin, or cruise in a riverboat on the mighty Volga River. So setting off for Moscow with Kathie on the 4th of July felt like a dream. I still can’t believe I’ve actually stood in Red Square. Someone pinch me.

Here’s the story…the beginning of it, that is.

Kathie’s flight here was delayed due to bad weather in Houston. Amazingly, her luggage was already waiting for her when she landed in Charleston nine hours late. We hoped her struggle to get to the East Coast wasn’t a bad omen for the whole trip.

When our Lufthansa flight out of DC didn’t take off on time, I hoped we might still make our connection in Frankfurt ok, but alas! – the agent had booked our flights just a tad too close together. We didn’t make it out of Frankfurt until about the time we were supposed to land in Moscow, and when we did arrive in Moscow, we had to wait for other flights to come in so our shuttle to the ship would be full.

Sheremetevo Airport, Moscow

This would have all been just ducky except that Kathie had bought us tickets for Swan Lake at the Bolshoi that evening. We finally arrived at the ship at 7 pm (the show was supposed to start at 7) and changed clothes at the speed of light (yuck – no time for a shower after twenty and a half hours of traveling). We planned to take a cab over to the theater, but then someone knocked on our cabin door as we started to leave, and I opened it to find Inga Zakharova, a pretty red-haired Russian woman who had been trying to give us directions at the desk. She obviously knew we were in too much of a dither to know what we were doing at that point.

“Are you ready? Let’s go. I’m going to walk you over to the Metro station.”

Kathie and I were shocked by such a kind offer. We flew out the door behind her and took off at a trot (in our Chico’s outfits, mind you) trying to keep up with her. As usual, I lagged a few steps behind, trying to memorize the route so I could get us back to the ship after the ballet.

When we arrived at the Metro station, Inga helped us buy round-trip train tickets and pointed out on the Metro map our current location and our destination. Thanking Inga profusely, Kathie and I waved goodbye and descended into the bowels of the Metro to board our train.

To say we were conspicuous would be an understatement. Here we were, sweating from our hike in our going-to-the-ballet clothes, riding Moscow’s subway with Russian kids listening to their iPods, workers making their end of the day commute, and little old babushkas toting their day’s groceries in Estee Lauder shopping bags (I kid you not!). I’m reading every sign and advertisement on the train wall because I’m as fascinated as I can be by everything around me and cannot control my curiosity, and I’m just thrilled to find that I can still read Cyrillic. (Long story – don’t ask.) So yeah, little kids were staring at us.

When we arrived at our station and resurfaced – I gotta tell you, the Metro escalators are about a quarter of a mile long and that is no joke - we were more than a little intimidated by what we saw. The square before us was surrounded by a bunch of buildings, any of which could be the Bolshoi. We stopped a couple of nicely dressed Russian ladies for directions.

“Izvenitye, gde Bolshoi?” I asked haltingly in my telltale American accent.

“(Something, something, something in Russian) perekhod (then something else in Russian) vnizh (and something else in Russian)”, I understood the lady on the left to say, as she gestured with her hand. I vaguely remembered the words “perekhod” and “vnizh” from thirty years ago, and figured she meant for us to walk around the square in front of us and down under the street to get to the other side.

Approaching the huge building that we figured must be the Bolshoi, we suddenly realized that we should have asked the lady for directions to the New Bolshoi. (Shortly before the trip, I had discovered online that the original Bolshoi closed in 2005 for a three year renovation, but supposedly the New Bolshoi was right next door to the old one. Likely story. There are only about a gazillion buildings next door to the old Bolshoi, and not a one of them has any kind of name or sign on the front.)

So we approached another nicely dressed lady for directions. “Izve…”, I started to say.

She walked on by, not slowing or even looking at us. I think Kathie would have taken her out if we hadn’t been in a bit of a hurry.

We walked further and asked some kids in their late teens, maybe early twenties, who appeared to be friendly. I think they were intrigued by us. A couple of them could speak a little English, but none had ever heard of the New Bolshoi. We showed them our tickets, on which was stamped the name of the theater in Cyrillic. One of the guys went over to a street kiosk and asked for directions, then came back and with gestures, some English, and some Russian, got us headed in the right direction.

We found the building but couldn’t figure out which door to enter. A balding, heavyset wiseguy offered to give us directions for $5. By now, Kathie and I were both about ready to tell the guy to “f--- off” (which would be unusual for Kathie), but we turned instead and walked off. The guy called after us and pointed to the correct door.

“Whew!” we sighed as we entered the building and handed our tickets to the lady at the door. Saying nothing, she pointed ahead and toward the right. We finally got to the right place after asking several people who, of course, didn’t understand us, for more directions. By now, however, it was going on 8:00 and intermission was about to begin, so the usher waved us over to a monitor where we could watch the show while we waited.

And believe me, the theater and ballet were worth the wait and all the struggle to get there. The inside of the theater was stunning. While Kathie took advantage of intermission to snap some shots, I sat in my second row – I repeat, second row – seat and just took in the view. Supposedly, the original Bolshoi is bigger and even more lavish. I gotta see that place.

The ballet itself was awesome. The props and stage were larger than life, the costumes were rich and glittery, and the Prince and Swans were more talented and moving than anything I’ve ever seen. If I could do one of those really loud fingers in the teeth whistles, this show deserved it. Instead, we just clapped and yelled “Bravo” with the rest of the crowd.

White Swan and her Prince

When we exited the theater at about 9:15, the sky was still light so we wandered around a bit before getting back on the Metro. We probably shouldn’t have dallied, though, because by the time we got back to our home station, it was dark and nothing looked the same as when we had followed Inga over. Undaunted, we took off in the direction I thought we should go – right through the park. There were people about but I imagined them to be leering at us, so I put my arm through Kathie’s. We followed this route until we got to what looked like a highway, at which point we turned around and walked back the way we came.

Getting back to the station, Kathie said she thought we had come from the other side of the street. I knew that couldn’t be right because we had walked through a residential section, not a shopping area. So I led us off in another direction, cursing myself for leaving the area map Inga had given us behind in the cabin.

I don’t know how many times we went back and forth, but after I almost got myself picked up by a couple of Johns who pulled up to the curb beside me looking for some fun, we decided it was time to find a cab.

I guess this is as good a place as any to say that I never take the trouble before traveling abroad to learn about the other country’s exchange rate.

We approached a couple of cars that were parked at the taxi stand and asked the guys standing by them how much for a ride to the ship. One of them said a figure in Russian and I looked at him and said, “Huh?”

“Six hundred rubles,” he said, recognizing that I was just another stupid (and lost) American.

“Skol'ka v’Amerikanka dollarov?” I winced, realizing I had just asked him the price in American woman dollars. Or something like that.

“Twenty five dollars,” he replied.

I thought that was a little high given that we were a five minute ride from the ship, but it was late, we were both tired because we’d been on the go for over twenty four hours by now, and there were no other taxis around. I looked at Kathie.

“I won’t pay it,” she said with a Kathie attitude.

I looked back and forth between them, noting that he didn’t look or smell too good. “How much are you willing to pay?” he demanded.

“Desyat dollarov?” I whined, thinking that ten dollars was reasonable.


“Pyatnadzat?” I tried again.

“Twenty,” he said with finality.

Never good at bargaining, I looked pleadingly at Kathie. “OK,” she said, and we piled into his grubby little car with me riding shotgun.

He put the car in gear and we rocketed out into traffic while I groped desperately for my seatbelt. As I continued to grope, I noticed he was driving up and down the same street, over and over. I looked to see if there was a handle on my door.

Kathie piped up, “This doesn’t look right.”

He made a turn onto a dark little dirt road through a park. By now, Kathie and I were both panicking, thinking that the cabbie was taking us to a place where his buddies were waiting to rob us…or worse.

Suddenly, the dirt road opened onto an open area in front of a very official looking, Stalin-era building standing in front of the river. Starting to breathe again, I whimpered to the cabbie, “This isn’t where our ship is.”

He pointed to the building and said firmly, “Porta. Porta.” Kathie handed him a twenty and we skedaddled out of the car and into the building, where a very official looking young guard sat, looking bored.

“Litvinov,” we said to him. When he looked at us, bewildered, we repeated ourselves several times, each time more slowly and clearly than the last. Like that was going to help. Apparently, he figured we weren’t going to leave him alone so he led us through the dimly lit lobby and out the back door, where we saw a long line of riverboats docked.

Dead on our feet by now, we approached each ship and asked of the crewmember on watch, “Litvinov?” Finally, our question was answered with a nod and we hopped on board, happy to be home.

Next, exploring Moscow…


Anonymous said...

Keep the adventure stories coming. Sounds like a good time was had by all...

Pat said...

Hey Girl,

You hiked the Inca Trail with us, so you know what it's like to travel with your mother. Almost two weeks since we got home, I'm still trying to get my hair to lie down.

Katharine said...

Yes, I'm deja vu exhausted again just reading this -- but, oh those White Nights (and white tights) -- and yes, your hair will stand on end if you travel with me.

Kappa no He said...

And that was just the first day!! I can't believe what wonderful seats you had for the ballet...and that taxi ride story gave me the willies. Can't wait to read more!

joan said...

Good Lord - this was just the first night?!!

Katharine said...

Joan, Let's just say it was an adventure, a movable feast and we we'd go back in a heartbeat.