From Russia, With Love

Everyone knows the title is a James Bond movie reference, right? Okay, just checking. (Fun Fact: Sean Connery’s James Bond was my first crush. That’s normal for a kid growing up in the 90’s, isn’t it?). Anyway, HI! Jaro and I just returned from Moscow. In reflecting on our time there, it’s difficult to summarize what I thought of it. I think it’s best if I let my thoughts and opinions unfold as I take you through the week…

Tuesday. We arrive at Domodedovo airport. Reminds me of Kyiv’s: standard for eastern Europe, I’m starting to realize. It’s just… not inviting. You might ask, well what airport is? Come to Schiphol, you’ll feel like your in a palace. Anyway, we get shuffled through the terminal to the customs clearance and it is pure chaos. No lines, no manners, people are shoving their way in front of us. We both smile at each other, expecting this, and wait for about an hour to get through customs. Thankfully, no issues with either of our visas! We’re in. Once we get our bags (thank god), we are out in the arrivals hall. I had read in my travel guide (Lonely Planet Moscow) that taxis to city centre are outrageously $$$, but we thought we would bite the bullet. Before we can hop in a cab, however, we need to exchange our money. We head over to the currency exchange counter and think 100 E should be plenty to get us to the hotel and maybe some food. WRONG. First of all, we count the Rubles we get in return and it’s only 3,500. Now, the actual exchange rate is about 42 Ruble to 1 Euro, so the airport pocketed 16% of our transaction. To put it bluntly, we were really ripped off. Traveler Tip: Exchange your money before arriving!

Once we got over that shock, we noticed that we were constantly being bombarded with “Taxi, taxi, taxi! Taxi to city centre.. only 5,300 Ruble!” Um, 5,300 Ruble is 125 Euro. NO THANKS. And we didn’t even have that much on us. Traveler Tip: The taxi drivers are relentless. Don’t make eye contact. Jaro did on accident, and then we were followed throughout the entire hall. One eventually offered as low as 2,000 Ruble, but then I got scared that he was actually a murderer and was going to kill us in his cab. I watch too much Law & Order: SVU.

So! We did the smart thing: Took the train! There is an express train from the airport to the city for a cool 320 Ruble apiece (yeah, you read that right!) and they run every half hour. As Charlie Sheen would say- Winning! On the train (which was nicely lit, had comfortable seats, and… oh! didn’t smell), we realized the station was a couple blocks from our hotel. More winning! Traveler Tip: Take the train. Don’t be a fool.

Dinner that night was at a restaurant near our hotel (Swissotel) in the Zamoskvorechie ‘hood called Me4ta (Sorry, the Cyrillic alphabet is still really tough for me). It tasted good enough (duck leg & rabbit ragu!), and service was fine, except for when we asked for two dirty martinis: we just got huge cups of chilled Martini brand vermouth. Gross. Jaro had been speaking to our server in Ukrainian and, despite nodding in agreement to everything he said, she didn’t understand a word. Traveler Tip: Point. That is a language everyone understands.

Wednesday. Jaro had meetings so I was left to adventure solo. I navigated the Metro (huge victory in itself) and got myself to the highlight of Russia: St. Basil’s Cathedral! I was so proud of myself for getting there, I almost cried. It is really pretty! It sits at one end of the Red Square and is framed by the Gum (huge, upscale mall) and the Kremlin (more on that later). I took a walk around Kitay Gorod neighborhood and saw a lot of cool stuff. Had room service for dinner because my courage subsided as night set in. Still a great day! Traveler Tip: Alone? Don’t really want to explore too much or afraid of getting lost? Ride the Metro all day! Seriously, the Metro stops had some of the most beautiful architecture of the city. Plus, it only costs 28 Ruble a ticket (less than a Euro).

Thursday. More lonely solo adventuring. Upon some great advice from a new friend (more on that in a bit), I went and checked out Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery in the Khamovniki neighborhood. Hung out with Yelstin and some Russian lit icons. I even found a nice cafe nearby serving authentic Russian “perogi” (which is what they call pies there) and cabbage soup. As I walked to the train, I passed kids playing in the park and I thought- Maybe this place isn’t so bad. That night, I met up with this new friend, Sam. She is a sibling of a friend from my high school! That’s right, someone from Grayslake also in Moscow. So where did Sam and I go? Oh, a sweet little place called Chicago Prime, one of her favorite spots and it’s easy to see why. An expat bar and restaurant. Other than the servers’ accents, I thought we were in the U.S. We followed that up with a trip to City Space, the bar in Swissotel, that is regularly on top 10 “best bar” lists around the world. It was pretty awesome! Beautiful views of the city and delicious drinks. Time for bed.

Friday. Somewhat of a waste of a day… Jaro and I switched hotels and took our time doing it, so we didn’t get settled into the Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya until pretty late in the day. We were now on the other side of the city in the Krasnoselsky neighborhood. Even though it was already 2, we decided to trek to another ‘hood for a late lunch. We went to a Ukrainian restaurant called Shinok, in Presnya. I was impressed with the food quality (better than any meal we ate in Ukraine, actually), but the service and decor left a LOT to be desired. A pleasant unsmiling waitress and indoor “pasture” (complete with tortured healthy-looking live cow and peacock) created a very strange ambiance. Combine that with the constant glares from the manager and we couldn’t wait to get out of there. We headed back to Chicago Prime that night for some normalcy and stiff drinks. Even bumped into Sam and some of her expat friends there and all agreed to have dinner the next day. Lovely!

Saturday. Our BIG tour day. In light of the Halloween spirit, we hung out with a dead guy. Lenin. His waxy little body is still on display in the Red Square (even though he asked to be buried next to his mother). We waited in line for about 30 minutes and were allowed to walk around his body (without stopping) for about 30 seconds. It was creepy. We then went into the Kremlin and were just in time for the Stand Up Ceremony where the guards do a routine of prancing and salutes in the plaza. After walking through a few cathedrals, they all started to look the same, so we headed out into the Red Square to meet up with Sam and venture out to a traditional Russian market, Izmaylovo, outside of Basmanny. It was awesome! Nesting dolls, furs, art, everything was there and we picked up quite a few souvenirs on the cheap. Definitely worth the long commute out there. Afterward, we headed into the city again for dinner with the other expats at a Georgian restaurant called Genatsvale in Arbat. The other ladies Sam has become friends with, Liz & Cristina, were great. Probably because… they are also from Chicago! What a small world, sitting there and talking about Big Star and Wicker Park. Plus, the food was excellent. Topped off the night with another trip to Chicago Prime and it was all in all, a great day.

Sunday. We got lost trying to get to a cafe for brunch and when we finally found it, the food was pretty bad. Time to go home.

As we flew home, I realized my feelings for Moscow were very mixed. They still are. While I appreciate the history and their struggles, they still have a long way to go in making this American girl feel comfortable there. Maybe they don’t want to, and that’s fine too, I guess. Here is a brief list of the realities I experienced as I went about all the excursions:

– Out in the city, no one speaks English. Not even people working ticket offices. Thank God our hotel concierge did, or my initial adventuring would have been a lot more difficult.

– No one smiles. Ever.

– You (the tourist) can’t smile. If you do, you will either 1) get glared at harder or 2) get taken advantage of. I learned this the hard way in both capacities. 

– The sun doesn’t shine. (Hardly) ever. It started to poke out of the clouds as we were leaving. #figures

– Winter is about 6 months long. It was in the 30’s throughout our visit. #nothanks

– Wild dogs. They are everywhere. It’s so sad. BUT, they are resourceful! Many of them learn how to use the trains to find shelter or food. I saw one limping toward the train station door and was running up to hold it open, but someone else beat me to it. I’ll post an article about it. Heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time.

I’m happy I went. I could get around the city with relative ease if I go back and I know there is a ton more to see. If…


2 thoughts on “From Russia, With Love

  1. Pingback: Kiev: Take Two | Those Dam Americans

  2. Pingback: An Expatriate Guide: Travel | Those Dam Americans

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