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5 jul
I had a glimpse
of what residential Russia would look like from the Communist era housing blocks that fill the outlying areas of Prague. Our hotel in Moscow was one of many nondescript red brick buildings along a quiet treelined parkway. Local Moscovites sat socializing on the wooden park benches until late at night. There was no hot water in the hotel the last few days of our stay, apparently some kind of seasonal event to be expected, we were told. The ten minute walk to the metro wound through a makeshift marketplace with stalls covered with discount clothing and shoes, quite different from the modern shops in the city center, and across a railroad track with a crossing light but no warning sound or barrier. We bought passes for ten trips on the metro, tram or bus, which served us well for four days.

Finding your way around Moscow would be a daunting challenge if you didn't read Cyrillic, the Russian alphabet. Fortunately my traveling partner, my son Adam, had taken a beginning class in Russian and could decipher the names of the metro stops. Our tour book listed Anglicized versions of the transport and street names, so there were endless puzzles to solve when looking for a destination. He taught me the letters as we went along, and after a few days I could read most signs and, surprisingly, some translated easily into internationally recognized words or store names. There were occasional similarities to the Czech language which I found helpful.

Moscow is huge. Many through streets are so wide you need to descend into underground passages to cross them, their hallways crammed with little stores, one night even a rock band, a subterranean city life of its own. The street corners of a major square look like islands in a sea of asphalt, white lines criss-crossing below, tram lines intersecting above and running off in every direction, not an inviting place to stroll around. Hopping the metro, you can feel the pulse of the city and its 8 million people - the metro cars arrive just a couple of minutes apart, yet each is claustrophobically filled. It races slower than other European city trains, yet has its own hectic beat. But you can't move too quickly or you'll miss the details - every metro station is decorated differently resembling small monuments or art galleries, one with tall stained glass windows, another with modern art splashed about, yet another with gleaming chandeliers and framed paintings. And above ground, every square is celebrated by a tall, dark political or literary figure, has people perched upon low walls eating lunch or smoking a cigarette, floral displays thrive despite the pollution.

Red Square is a wide expanse that takes your breath away. Every building along its sides is an important landmark of its own. At the farthest end, made small by perspective and distance, growing as we approached, is probably the most fantastic, colorful, whimsical looking building on earth, St Basil's Cathedral, intensely decorated and topped with wild onion towers, each different in blazing color and design. In one vault among the warm flowered walls inside, male choral voices reverberated through the narrow passageways. When the summer darkness finally fell after ten at night, St. Basil's looked like a Disney vision, with silhouettes of visitors milling around it. The long GUM building or state department store, now privately run, had every window and entrance outlined in small points of lights, the actual structure invisible in the dark, like a shining skeleton of a past building.

The gold domes of the Kremlin gleamed over the red wall, but we were not to venture any farther. The Kremlin itself and Cathedral Square, also behind the red wall, were closed due to bomb threats in London, or so we were told. Unfortunately, we waited on line for an hour before understanding that the sign that said the Kremlin was closed meant Cathedral Square as well. Two Russian women accosted us at the entrance to the ticket window, each with their own hard luck story of why they needed to cut in front of us, explaining that they have come so far and may never be there again (wasn't everyone on line in the same situation?). We had some small satisfaction knowing that they were also turned away.

The Old English Court buildings not far from Red Square sported more onion towers over faded wooden roofs, in fact we were to find echos of those tower shapes in every area of the city we wandered. One white marble church with gold domes and brass statuary was rebuilt after the original was destroyed. Paintings of the figures inside were touching: realistic saints, faces natural, although wearing old fashioned clothing. The Tretyakov Gallery held an extensive and fascinating survey of Russian art including Russia's own impressionist artists. I was struck by big monitors displaying advertising all over the city, in the airport, shouting out Russia's acceptance of the commercial, capitalist world.

Gorky Park, once you got past the tacky amusement rides, was a relaxing place to walk green forested paths. On the other side of the park, in a rambling sculpture garden by the modern art museum, stood expressive modern Russian constructions beyond the political art of a now past age, with a corner reserved for resurrected statues of Stalin, Lenin and many others that had been taken down from public places and were stored unseen for many years. A massive iron ship with Peter the Great peering from its hull stood in the river nearby.

While shopping in the Arabat district, a woman vendor told me about Russian fairy tales as she opened nesting Matryoshka dolls that illustrated stories. She put on a light colored artic fox fur hat and said "for women - see?" A dollmaker that looked like Santa Claus, with a long white curly beard explained that there are twenty people in his family, he is 21, and they make the dolls, including their own variations with winking eyes and animated faces.

It's probably the hackneyed tourist thing to do, but I had never actually seen Swan Lake performed live and Adam had never been to a ballet. It was an elegant treat to see the masters of the Bolshoi in the lovely classic performance. Although the larger theatre was being renovated and we were relegated to the smaller one, it might actually have been a bit more intimate.

Young Russians looked like trendy young people in any country, especially one with an economy in transition, growing business sector, and active nightlife. I marveled at the Russian women and how they seem to metamorphose from thin, stylish young women into sturdy, big breasted Moscow matrons to small scarf covered babushkas carrying overstuffed shopping bags of personal items. A winter scene in this city would surely look very different, identities hidden under wool coats and furry head coverings, wrapped in bulky scarfs.

Russian food was hearty, highlighted by seafood, caviar and vodka. One restaurant in a less touristy neighborhood listed sturgeon in Moscow style. I asked the waiter what it was and he brought a woman to our table who spoke some English. She looked exasperated trying to explain, as if it was inconceivable that we didn't know this. "It's Russian!" she practically shouted, "…sour cream, spinach, cheese - it's normal!" This became our cry when we encountered the culturally unfamiliar during our three week trip: "It's (fill in country), it's normal!"


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