On Monday morning, after a monster room-service breakfast, I met Natasha, the contact of a contact I’d hired to show me some of Moscow’s ropes (since I’m touristing for just a short time, I didn’t want to waste any of it figuring out basic bits of geography or logistics). She showed up in the lobby of my hotel in a shockingly magnificent mink coat, scored, I later learned, on one of her trips to Canada when she worked for a joint venture.
Her English was great and she was a pleasant person to hang out with. I hadn’t requested that she drive, but since it was so cold out, she brought her huge American SUV, so later in the day I got to have that very special experience of driving around the city in rush-hour traffic.
We parked down near St. Basil’s, and although she works as an interpreter rather than a tour guide (as she had to insist to a ticket-taker at the Kremlin—my rudimentary Russian made out the word “constitution” as she remonstrated with the dude; it turns out he was giving her trouble, reminding her unauthorized tour guides were NOT permitted and she was reminding him of her constitutional rights to speak English wherever she wanted), she was full of fact and factoids about Russian and Muscovite history. When we were in the various churches inside the Kremlin complex, I was glad to have an Orthodox person around to explain the various rules of the church and to give me some clues about the iconography. In one of the “show churches” (Natasha had explained that many of the rules of Russian orthodoxy were relaxed in these temples of tourism—there was no encouragement for women to cover their heads as is usually required, for example) two women were deep in prayer, oblivious to the visitors wandering around them.
After photo-ops at the cannon that never fired and the bell that never rang (apart from the translation and clue-giving, it was worth several dollars to have someone available to snap me in the various stations of Moscow tourism—though I was so bundled up against the cold it could be anyone in the snaps, since pretty much all you can make out of me is my glasses frames), we went for a snack at a café overlooking Red Square in the old GUM department store, now a mall full of international boutiques. (My recommendation from the menu? The smoked salmon with lemon and olives—a monster portion of the good stuff and well tasty even if the olives are black jobs out of a can.)
Having restricted myself to the very Western/tourist-dominated bits of Moscow, I was shocked to visit the GUM bathrooms. I’d heard about the need to grab a helping of toilet paper when you paid your 8 rubles to use the lav, but I hadn’t been warned to expect a hole in the ground in a fancy “Western” facility. In a cold climate when you’re bundled against the elements, it’s a challenge to squat-pee with sufficient focus to keep your clothing dry, but I’m glad to say I succeeded. I was dying to ask Natasha how she managed to avoid soiling her magnificent mink, but it was an inquiry too far.
Afterward she drove me out to a place near the university where street vendors sell typical Russian tourist tchotchkes. After picking out some tacky items, I stupidly left them in Natasha’s car, so I may have to buy yet another Putin-Yelstin-Gorbachev-Brezhnev-Lenin matrioshki before I leave. I really wanted to get a cheap fur hat, but I was embarrassed. Now I wish I had because I imagine my chances of getting a good price were better when I had a Russian with me.
Finally, we made a little foray into the Metro. She picked out a couple of the more scenic stations for our demo—Mayakovsky, with its beautiful mosaic ceilings, followed by Revolution Square, which boasts some lovely Soviet-style statues on the station platforms. By now jetlag was setting in, so I returned home around 5:30 for some relaxing BBC Prime TV and a very early night. Too early, perhaps, since I’m now typing this at 4:30 in the morning!