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Thursday, December 19, 2002

A Whiny Wednesday
For some reason I was aggravated for much of this particular Wednesday (Dec. 11). For one thing I never did figure out the sleep thing. Without chemical assistance* I was completely unable to control my circadian rhythms—at 4 p.m. I’d fall into a deep sleep, and at 2 a.m. I’d be wide awake. It’s all very well living on your own schedule, but when you have to coordinate with little things like meal times or opening hours (or, writing this a week later, work hours) it all gets a bit more complicated. So, on Wednesday morning I was in a foul mood. Things seemed way more complicated than they needed to be, and I was tired and experiencing the vacation equivalent of the Sunday evening mardies, when you know your precious free time is running out and you just don’t feel like you’ve taken full advantage of it.

I set out to see Lenin’s tomb with a presentiment of doom, and sure enough when I got there (my third time in that exact spot in the space of three days) I stupidly told the truth when the soldiers guarding the entrance asked me if I had a camera. I mean, yes, I did, but it wasn’t a problem for me not to use it, and a) I didn’t feel like tramping back to the Kremlin proper and trying to figure out where to check it; and b) I didn’t quite feel safe just leaving my precious little metal box off in a room somewhere given my sense of direction (would I ever find the check-room again) and my virtually nonexistent language skills (would I understand exactly what they wanted me to do). Basically, I had to decide whether to schlep back to the cloakroom and check my camera or give up on seeing the shrunken monkey man. Of course, those would be the choices for a normal, balanced person. Instead I got into a fight with the soldiers (quite an achievement when your vocabulary’s as limited as mine). Let’s face it, even in English I wasn’t going to persuade them to ignore the rules and let me in anyway (there’s not a whole lot of security rule-relaxing going on these days), and in Russian it was a dead cert. Instead, I came off like an ugly American demanding my rights when I knew I was in the wrong.

I gave up on Lenin, temporarily at least, and decided to kill some time in the underground mall across the street. Unfortunately, as I discovered when I got stuck in a Sbarro pizza, the mall didn’t open for another 30 minutes. These are the things guidebooks don’t prepare you for: What’s the best thing to do when a) it’s -15; b) there’s no place to go sit down within a mile radius; c) you don’t want to wander aimlessly because you don’t want to tire yourself out needlessly since complete exhaustion is guaranteed within a matter of hours anyway? After a few minutes brow-wrinkling I decided to give up on politics and head off for a bit of culture instead.

So, I ducked into the Metro and headed off to the Tretyakov Gallery’s modern art building. I didn’t have a very clear picture of where the museum was located, so when I left the Park Cultury Metro station I tried following the crowd, but I pretty quickly figured they were heading to Uglyville rather than Beautyland. After a bit of map mauling (for me, map-reading is like mind-reading; there’s no rational way to do it, I just sort of squint my eyes and make a big mental effort for a bit, then I just randomly pick a direction and proceed by trial and error), I realized I needed to cross the river.

Most Moscow streets, I discovered, are pretty pedestrian-unfriendly. There’s no way for a sane and sober person to cross above-ground; instead you have to descend into an underpass (and boy does capitalism thrive in those subterranean walkways). Since I had to cross the river to get to the Tretyakov, I was glad to see that there was a pedestrian walkway along the side of the highway, since I certainly didn’t feel like walking alongside the traffic in the snow. As was the case most of the time during my days of tourism, I was the only person walking across the bridge and later the only person cruising the gallery. (No Dressed to Kill scene for me!)

The Tretyakov’s sculpture garden is the home of the Garden of Fallen Heroes—a collection of giant sculptures of now-rejected idols—Marx, Lenin, Brezhnev, etc. I spent what felt like forever struggling to hold the camera at arm’s length and put myself in the frame with Karl, Vladimir, and Leonid, though I was largely unsuccessful (except at looking like a freak). I was able to cajole a lone passer-by to take my picture alongside one of the massive figures, but it was cold and she didn’t want to make a long job of it (or spend too much time without her gloves on), so it wasn’t a very successful picture either.

The museum was wonderful but overwhelming: an endless parade of rooms, artists, styles, biographies, and, oh yes, art. There were a lot of great pieces by artists whose names I didn’t recognize (Cold War, schmold war), but after a while I was too conscious of my aching hips and sore back and the various ways my feet were announcing their displeasure to really enjoy the art. This museum store was charmingly drab and unimproved. It was also refreshingly cheap: I bought two books, a couple of postcard packs, pens, calendars, and other trashy trinkets and still had change from $20

I was too wiped out to do anything else, but I had to wait for a few hours for my ride to the seminar center, so I ended up roasting in the hotel bar listening to bullshit expat business conversations and staring at some real-life Russian equivalents of the Sopranos’ Paulie and Sil. Well, actually, they were a couple of rows down the ladder from that—they were two well-dressed, good-looking young men who sat staring at their cell phones or wiping imaginary lint off their jackets. It was only when they went over to a larger table on the other side of the room to accompany some older gents out of the building that I realized they were goons.

My ride arrived around 8:30 and after a couple of miserable hours in traffic (though I was accompanied by a very charming, English-speaking representative of the Moscow School of Political Studies), I arrived at Golitsyno, and headed straight to my cell.

To be continued …

* When I got back to work and told a colleague who’s a sort of professional traveler about my struggles with jet lag, he said, astonished, “Didn’t you take Halcyon?” So I guess that’s the way to handle it next time, though I’m not entirely certain how to get hold of Halcyon.