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…


Rushin’ for Russia

Two major themes of this Big Move to Europe are the following: Staying positive and being patient. Both are in my thoughts daily (some days more consciously than others). More and more, I see that having one of them makes it a whole lot easier to have the other. Well, nothing has challenged me in either capacity as much as the past several days. This entry is slightly more like a journal entry (read: emotional, possibly on the brink of ‘whiny’) than an informative blog post, but I hope that it will be helpful to others with travel stupidity inexperience. 🙂

Last week, we found out Jaro had some meetings in Moscow at the end of the month. Awesome! Having never been to Russia and super excited about the prospect of seeing a new place, I booked my ticket immediately and bought my little Lonely Planet travel guide. I quickly googled ‘Russian travel visa’ to see if one was required (it was) and make sure I didn’t need to do anything prior to picking up said visa and saw that I needed to get some voucher. Click, click, ‘pay here’, click, and it should be emailed to me by the next day. Sweet. I put my feet up and watch some Mad Men.

Naturally, I receive an email the next day that I had filled something out incorrectly. I forgot to include the city I was traveling to. Duh. Okay, so I respond “Moscow… sorry!” and they write back that they will process. Of course, then my bank did not allow the transaction (hooray for inconvenient credit card security). I call my bank and tell them it’s fine, and they take off the hold. It still doesn’t go through. So, I have to get Jaro’s card info and FINALLY, that gets accepted. After all that back n’ forth, I get the voucher, yay, and plan to go to the Russian consulate on Monday (yesterday) to pick up my visa.

Monday morning rolls around; it looks like an unusually beautiful day. I should have known this was too good to be true. I try to find the address for the consulate; I knew it was in The Hague, where all the government offices are, about an hour away by train. I click on the official website link since there is, surprisingly, no quick Google Map image. I wander around on the site a bit, then I see it- a whole list of crap that you need to provide to obtain a visa. Not only do you need the voucher, you also need:

1. To fill in a lengthy application. With info such as ‘all’ countries visited in the last TEN years, employment, education and criminal records… You would think it’s an application for the presidency.

2. Proof of medical insurance that covers treatment in Russia (I didn’t know if we even had it here yet!)

3. A recent passport photo (separate from your passport)

4. Actual passport (duh)

Oh, and the standard processing time is 5 days, could be longer. We leave on Tuesday… that gave me 6 business days. And the visa application hours are 10 to 12. How absurd! It was already 8am by this point and to start with, I don’t even have a printer. EEK!!!!! Begin freak out. Especially since my hefty ticket was non-refundable & non-transferable. I knew I should have paid the extra 10 bucks for travel insurance! Damn! So I take a breath, call the Jaro and he gets ready to print everything I send him. He had just realized himself that he needed to provide all these documents to Nike for them to process his visa for him.

The other kicker: I read that there are strict rules about picking up the visa in the country where you have citizenship, which, of course, is the good ole’ U.S. of A. You know, across the ocean. Since we don’t have our residency cards yet, this gets even trickier, because we can’t just prove we have long-term residency in The Netherlands.

F. (pardon my french, mom) 🙂

So I call the consulate, try not to let my voice shake and first ask if it’s possible to ensure processing in 5 days. She basically told me, “That sounds like a personal problem,” and there is no way to rush order a visa. It made me realize how easy we had it in the States where you could get a passport in one day! #takingluxuryforgranted

Then, I ask what other proof we could provide for our residency here. Rental agreement? Nope. Temporary residency sticker in our passport? Nope. It has to be an official letter from the immigration office that the residency has been approved. Has it? Another phone call to Jaro determines that, thankfully, it has. He has the proof at his office.

After more phone calls and emails, all the documents get printed and I try to catch my breath. It was a rough morning, but we collected everything I needed.

So today. Of course, it’s pouring rain and I mis-time my walk so I end up running to catch the train. Once I’m in The Hague, it’s still pouring and I only have a 50 Euro bill, which the tram operator will not accept since the fare is about 2 Euro. Nothing is open along my route to the consulate where I could break my bill, so I end up walking the entire way there, a solid half hour. In the cold rain. With a broken umbrella. That flipped inside out no less than 10 times. It gets hard to laugh at yourself after the third or fourth time… especially when, every time the umbrella snaps back into place, it flicks water at you and feels like someone sneezing in your face.

But, I got to the Russian consulate, documents in hand. Seemed like everything was correct. Phew! 95 Euro later, they tell me it would be ready on Monday JUST in time for our travel, I stutter “Spasibo” (thank you in Russian), and I walk away relieved.

Until I realize that they kept my passport. And we were planning on going to London to watch Da Bears this weekend. Hmm…

I try to stay positive and decide that I should treat myself to lunch at a nice restaurant in The Hague. I find a cute, covered patio with outdoor heaters and proceed to have my nice lunch date with myself.

Until a one-footed pigeon repeatedly flies onto my table to grab my food. After several failed attempts to stab it shoo it away with my knife, I wave down the server and hand her my 50 Euro bill. She asks if I have anything smaller. I sigh.

Shit like this happens to me sometimes. But I keep smiling…