Tuesday, November 10, 2009

It's a Circus

In Russia: Day 9

Monday morning, we take the trolleybus. Their wires are ubiquitous overhead in Moscow, but I’ve never ridden one before. Faith is looking out windows, identifying landmarks, and offering her own brand of insight. Off the trolley, we stroll a birch tree-lined boulevard. Young Nikolai spots a squirrel with such enthusiasm we haven’t the heart to mention how common they are in the States. On Sparrow Hill, Moscow’s highest point, we overlook the city’s sprawl. The Kremlin’s golden domes are easily visible, and on this unusually clear day, good eyes can just pick out a dome or two of St. Basil’s Cathedral.

Trinity Church is close. This Russian Orthodox church was shuttered during Communist times, as were all churches the government knew existed. Used for storage until Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, today the church again fulfills its sacred purpose. In Moscow, we’ve found enough English speakers that travel has been a snap. But at Trinity Church, the door bears signs in only Russian and German. Faith says this church is strict on appropriate attire; men are forbidden to enter with hats, or women to enter without. Women tourists are excused with winter hats and hoods, but a devout Russian Orthodox woman would never enter sans scarf covering her head. Dark inside, candles flicker, illuminating the gold leaf on the omnipresent icons of saints and apostles. Aromas of wax and incense join forces as smoke wafts in the domes, made visible by light of the small windows high in the church. Russian Orthodoxy is ritual- and tradition-bound, based on sensory appeal to create a religious experience for the worshipper. Our kids, exuberant outside, are reverent and quiet inside. Yulya studies the icons, then confides in her diary. She’s faithfully taking notes everywhere describing her week; I’ve seen her writing at the hotel, on the trolleybus and metro, and now in church. I yearn to read her words, as I admire her pursuit of the more cerebral. Leaving the church, the kids face the sanctuary and cross themselves three times, in Orthodox fashion.

Gazing over Moscow on Sparrow Hill, Russia’s most prestigious institution of higher learning towers behind us. Moscow State University, whose graduates are welcome anywhere, is housed in one of Stalin’s seven neoclassical skyscrapers, built in the 40s and 50s. Considered eyesores by some, the gargantuan “seven sisters” are scattered in Moscow, housing hotels, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, apartments, the university, and other entities. Until 1990, the university was Europe’s tallest building. The building’s shell is replete with communist symbolism and propaganda; statues glorifying the deeds of farmers and workers, hammers and sickles, and a twelve-ton red star adorn it. It was formerly very difficult to get into the university, Faith says. Admission was granted only by passing demanding entrance examinations, or string-pulling with officials in high places. In Communist times, students attended tuition-free. Faith laments that today, the education is pricey, and entrance reserved more for the moneyed than the qualified. As the kids pose in front their country’s Harvard, Faith says about 10% of today’s students are orphans with sufficient promise that the country cannot afford to let them slip into the abyss awaiting most aged-out orphans. Seeing ten-year-old Nikolai, Dima, and Yulya here, I try to imagine them toting backpacks on campus, striving to better themselves if this trip doesn’t end as I hope for them. Perhaps it’s unrealistic, but I derive solace knowing there is a glimmer of hope, however small, for a few of the 700,000 + orphans of Russia.

We’re on to the circus. While in Russia with our own kids, we were goaded to attend, though our efforts at economy precluded it. I make up for it today by accompanying ten giddy orphans who dance up the steps toward the round pavilion housing the spectacle. We’re running late, and the coat ladies here are no faster than elsewhere. In her most brazen act yet, Faith vaults the counter and collects our coats, hanging 19 up in the time the coat ladies do one or two. I am taken aback by her chutzpah, but she is fast, and we sit down in our nosebleed seats with a minute to spare. The circus begins with a triumphant fanfare and laser show, and continues with clowns, acrobats, and a smattering of animals. The costumes and props are extravagant, though even from a distance, the scandalous skimpiness of some of the women’s costumes appalls me. Underdressed and suggestively posed, one rides out on a camel to Faith’s chiding, “This is Playboy!” Despite the first-rate quality of the acts, I am embarrassed at having scheduled this, and groveling thankful my husband and son aren’t along. At the intermission, Faith leads us to vacant seats ringside, and we down a brown bag lunch. When the circus resumes, we see everything better.

Toward the performance’s end, after an especially revealing act, Larry, our most reserved traveler, sits blushing, thankful a cloak of darkness covers him. In a flabbergasting display of multi-lingual clairvoyance, a bumbling and miscreantic clown bursts from the ring, dashes up a few rows with spotlight shadowing, and grabs our Larry! As she drags him from his seat, I am incredulous he goes with her. Our group roars, releasing an incongruous amalgam of emotion: mortification, concern, and hilarity. In the center of the ring, she hangs a cloth over poor, chagrined Larry, with only a cutout for his head. In the blinding spotlight, he is unaware he wears a drawing of a muscle-bound man, complete with strategically-placed fig leaf. Another clown-accomplice draws a life-sized caricature, shakes Larry’s hand, never realizes he’s an English-speaking monoglot, and directs him still blushing, drawing in hand, to his seat. Our group applauds Larry, his good sportsmanship, and his expeditious return. When the circus is over, Larry is a Lighthouse Project celebrity, posing for pictures with his drawing, accepting congratulations, and vowing never again to gloat that the spotlight isn’t on him.

Faith reenacts her cloakroom attendant imitation, then we head into the chill. Back on the trolleybus, we travel one-half mile before it breaks down. We switch to another trolley, ribbing, smiling, and reminiscing over the most fantastic events of our day. Maybe trolleys don’t break down daily, and maybe clowns don’t accost every American circus-goer, but as we settle into our return home to the hotel, we laugh that we have now had every experience Moscow offers.

This is our best day, and I, for one, am glad to share it.


See photos and video here.