October 27, 2008

Moscow, Russia

I had had a wonderful welcome into Russia with a relaxing and surprisingly easy time in St. Petersburg, but I knew Moscow was a much larger city that would take a lot more of my attention and energy to navigate. At one of my Cousins’ dinner parties in Greece the previous month there was a lovely guest who I had been speaking with about my trip and during our conversation he passed me a number and told me to call his good friend in Moscow when I arrived. So a few days before I was to head there on the overnight train, I phoned, and Axel picked up, “Hello.”
“Hello,” I said, “I am a friend of Angelos. I will be in Moscow on Sunday and was wondering if you wanted to meet for some coffee?”
“Yes, of course,” he replied, “where are you staying?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, “I’ll book a hostel or something.”
“No, no. Absolutely not,” Axel responded, “You are a friend of Angelos and I insist you stay here at my apartment. I will be away on business until late Monday night, but I’ll have my assistant get in touch with you so we can arrange a way for you to get my keys and a time for the driver to pick you up at the station.”
Um. O.K. Welcome to Moscow Andriana!
I was surprised at how taken aback I was at such a quick and open display of gracious hospitality and effort on my behalf from someone I had yet to meet. I think as an American, I was not quite used to this type of generosity; most of us, myself included, simply do not respond in such a way. A coffee, yes, but accommodations for a stranger would probably warrant an initial meeting. But nonetheless, I was thankful for the offer and thrilled to be continuing my wow-Russia-is-easy theme. I was picked up at the station according to plan and driven to a great apartment perfectly located in the center of town, across the street from the famous music academy and down the street from Red Square. I had been staying at hostels since the Czech Republic, which was four countries ago, and so it was a nice change of pace to be in a personal setting once again. Axel was still away and I took a very rare opportunity to behave as I would in my own home; I did my laundry, I showered, I held conversations with myself out loud, I walked around in my underwear and socks and ate a sandwich on a napkin plate while standing at the kitchen counter. Those simple things were enough to restore some semblance of normalcy, which so often does not exist while traveling.
That evening I set out into the bright lights and big boulevards of Moscow, immersing myself in the high voltage energy on the streets; I walked and walked and then finally settled down at a salon to get a haircut. The next day I had a similar program; I walked and walked, getting my orientation down, popping into little churches and museums along the way. Axel came home late that evening and I knew right away we were going to get along just fine; not only was his presence friendly and inviting, but when he suggested we take a night time tour of Moscow by car, stopping by the Kremlin I had yet to visit on my own so I could see the lights, I thought to myself, “Is it possible to duplicate this kind man and put him on the welcome crew for every city I will be visiting?”
The next day it was cold and raining and I tried to battle the crowds on Red Square to see the sights, waiting twenty minutes to visit a waxy looking Lenin in his glass tomb for one second before being shooed forward by the guards and finally getting off the line at St. Basil’s Cathedral when it was clear that I would soon be blinded by a mismanaged umbrella if I remained. It wouldn’t be the first blinding associated with the famous cathedral because it is said that Ivan the Great or Ivan the Terrible, depending on how you view history, had the eyes of the architects ripped out so they could never produce something of equal beauty. I decided instead to warm myself at one of the famous Russian “Bani’s”, or bathhouses, in the neighborhood. I was expecting something like I had experienced in Hungary at the thermal baths or like I was used to in New York at the Ukrainian sauna, where men and women of all ages, shapes, ethnicities and social classes soak, steam and detoxify together in a friendly, community-like way. When I arrived at this particular “old” Russian Bani, I immediately saw that it had been renovated into a rather upscale salon-like, women only establishment whose clientele were bone-thin skinny, breast-implanted, collagen lipped, jeweled-out wives, girlfriends and mistresses of extremely rich men; to say I didn’t quite fit in with my flat chest, cellulite ridden rear end, a bottom lip that is bigger than the top, my grandmother’s simple wedding band from 1925 and my own bank account would be pretty much accurate. But hey, I was cold and there was a hot sauna, so like it or not ladies… move over, I’m coming in!
Axel and I spent my last night in Moscow doing something so authentically Russian by attending a ballet performance where a skinny, fragile and graceful ballerina has a catfight with the larger, older and more athletic ballerina over the Sultan’s gay soon to be son-in-law and in the end one of the ballerina’s winds up dead, bitten by a snake hidden in a gift of flowers. But it was not the ballet performance that moved me, but rather Axel’s kindness and trust in opening the door to a stranger, because in the ending of this story, he taught me a great lesson in hospitality and, in doing so, actually opened the door to a new friendship.


jess said...

how fabulous

Dactucker said...

Somehow, I find myself falling more in love with Andriana the more she travels. The Journey is much more satisfying than the destination. But I'm sure you know that. Do your thing girl!



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