Thursday, November 5, 2009

I'm Lovin' It

In Russia: Day 7

Halloween dawns Saturday, but no one dresses up in Russia. Faith makes blini, thin Russian pancakes like greasy crepes, filled with a cream cheese-type mixture and topped with fruit and sour cream. When I know what she’s whipping up, my response is instinctively Pavlovian. Faith is a talented cook, and I love her authentic treats.

Leaving the hotel, we stop at Gorky Park. In summer, Gorky is crowded with families enjoying pricey rides, but today it’s abandoned, except for a man selling rides on a reindeer and a balloon saleswoman by the gate. I’m mystified who their clientele is at this time of year, and I wonder if they’ll find a single taker today.

The cold is everything you’d expect from Russia. The wide boulevards bustle with an eclectic mixture of Soviet-style jalopies, compact European cars, and high-end luxury sedans of Russia’s nouveau riche, so larger streets have underpasses where pedestrians cross. The Gorky Park underpass houses an underground art gallery, where we linger a spell. Confession: I’m less interested in the paintings than the warmth, as this one is enclosed and heated. Outside again, we wander through a humble statue park. The kids stand by an oversized globe called “World of Kindness.” It seems especially fitting for our international group, which is melding famously. At the end of the free park is the Soviet Statuary Park. I am fascinated and want badly to visit. It’s frigid, though, and the rest of the group is disinterested so I defer to them. Faith asks the kids if they know Stalin, Lenin, and Khrushchev. Serious Dima, twelve, and my star of the trip, raises his hand and says he has. Faith confides, “It doesn’t mean anything to them. He’s heard the names, but he doesn’t know the deeds.” She seems bothered by their historical ignorance, lamenting we only learn from history when we study it, but allowing it’s not the kids’ fault. Leaving, I plan I’ll return in January, when it’s even colder.

Europe’s largest city, Moscow is a sprawling metropolis, so we hop the metro to get around. Constructed under Stalin in the 1930s and 1940s, it’s a transportation wonder. Deep beneath the surface, the subterranean stations were intended to serve as bomb shelters during World War II. Unfathomably long escalators transfer passengers to the bowels of Moscow, where they catch their trains and reach their destinations expeditiously. Moscow’s metro is the busiest in the world, so efficient it’s rare to wait more than a minute for a train. A bargain at about 60 cents per ride, the metro is much quicker than navigating the Moscow traffic above ground. A destination in its own right, some stations are works of art, with mosaics depicting scenes from the life of Vladimir Lenin, statues extolling the wholesome virtues of the Soviet worker’s life, bas reliefs of cultural pursuits, chandeliers, and marble. My only reservation about the metro is the crowd. Our adult-to-child ratio favors the kids, and it would be easy to lose a child in the throng. Each time we exit a car, we do a frantic head count to ensure all are accounted for, and we breathe easier when we’re all together again. Faith cajoles the attendants at almost every entrance to let the small children on free, and they find her powers of persuasion irresistible.

We go to the cosmonaut museum, situated at the base of a giant rocket-topped monument for Yuri Gagarin, Russia’s first cosmonaut. Back in the 1950s, Gagarin was the first man in space, still a matter of considerable national pride. Faith asks the kids to name the first cosmonaut and Dima raises his hand, giving the correct answer. The cosmonaut museum surprises me; I would not have guessed such a state-of-the-art museum existed anywhere in Russia. At less than $1 for children and about $3 for adults, the price is right for potential adoptive families. The quality of exhibits is uniformly high, and the kids are mesmerized by the space vehicles and the interactive computer displays. Yulya, twelve, and Larisa, ten, listen with rapt attention as a guide describes a single exhibit to them personally for over 30 minutes. We see two stuffed dogs, Belka and Strelka, who went into space as canine cosmonauts. I appreciate the exhibit information in Cyrillic, since I feel no guilt for not reading all of it. The cosmonaut museum is a hit, and a sure destination for our January trip.

On our way to the Durov Animal Theater, we pass October Square, an electrical wire and exhaust-filled nod to the communists who long for the good old days of the Soviet Union. A large statue of Lenin, the only one still standing in Moscow, supervises a mess of traffic like Big Brother. Before the show, we try a different McDonald’s for dinner. Packed with Russians hungry for a taste of America, it epitomizes chaos. It takes brass to eat at McDonald’s in Moscow, at least if you plan to sit whilst you eat. Faith asks diners who look done if they are leaving. Not enough are, so she starts pleading if some of our kids can sit at their tables with them. I am appalled she asks, and shocked when all say yes. By the time we have our food, Faith has somehow finagled seating for 19 together. Sometimes I rue Faith’s brass; other times I am awestruck. My emotion now is primarily awe; otherwise, we’d all be standing with our Big Macs. For ease, I order ten Happy Meals for the kids, and the cashier is taken aback when told the quantity. She hears I hardly speak Russian, and she thinks I have misspoken. The number and industry of McDonald’s cashiers in Russia is staggering, so I document it for the blog while waiting. This act of international restaurant espionage elicits a passionate tsk-tsk from a guard I hadn’t seen. Russian businesses seem sensitive about photos; if you wonder if picture taking is permitted, take one and gauge permissibility by the response. When the meals come, I am most unhappy to learn a Russian Happy Meal is boxless and toyless. The kids don’t mind, and attack their fries and Coca-Cola with vim; I doubt they know they’ve been gypped. Eating shoulder to shoulder and bumping elbows with the twelve around our table for six, we marvel how McDonald’s tastes better in a foreign land.

Leaving the restaurant, night has fallen. We hightail it to the Durov Animal Theater, worried we’ll be late. I haven’t been to a single museum or performance venue in Russia where attendees keep their coats. Cloakrooms are ubiquitous in Moscow, staffed by blue-smocked attendants who seldom outpace glacial speed. I study them for signs of job satisfaction derived from repetitiously collecting strangers’ coats and hanging them on hooks all day, but find none. We sit right before the lights dim, in time to see a pig pull a wagon, a porcupine jump fences, a hippopotamus waddle in circles, pelicans fly from the rafters, and crows play basketball. The show is mildly amusing, but not enough for me to fend off sleep. In the darkened theater, I doze, only to awaken with a start when a loud noise indicates the end of an intermission I hadn’t known started.

At the end of a full day, we return to the hotel to regroup for tomorrow with our hearts full, our hands cold, and our cheeks rosy. Sunday we’ll find Russia’s most famous sight in our scopes, and I can’t wait to share it with the kids and families. In the hustle of our sightseeing, I wonder if anyone is falling in love.
I'm loving the trip, but can hardly wait to see the results.
See accompanying photos and videos here.