Churches, Churches

Trip Start Jun 30, 2006
Trip End Jun 30, 2007

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Flag of Russian Federation  ,
Monday, July 10, 2006

We got our first taste of Russian helpfulness as soon as we left the dreaded constraints of Moscow. I wanted very much to see something other than a sprawling, annoying, metropolis, so I picked Suzdal out of the options in the back of Lonely Planet Moscow. Unfortunately, the earliest bus from Moscow went at around 6pm, meaning that we would get to this wee town around 11pm. Coupled with this was the fact that none of the phone numbers listed for the hotels in Suzdal worked (not that it would have done me any good, I wouldn't have understood the response after I badly blurted out 'Do you have a room tonite and how much?' in Russian). Well, in the usual way I respond to issues such as these, I went 'Fuck it, Russia can't get any worse, we'll figure it out when we get there', and promptly put it out of my mind.

It was a miracle we got there at all, given that 'there' ended up being the bus stopping at a crossroads to a road only slightly better than a dirt track, with no sign of the bus station indicated in Lonely Planet, or even a sign for a bus stop. The only reason I asked where we were was that 2 people were already getting out, it was the right distance from the last town, and my intuition and paranoia were harassing the royal hell out of me.

Suzdal it was! Well, another 2km away down the side road at least. We were thankful at least for Suzdal's high latitude (or is it longitude? Pretty ironic that I once came 2nd in a state-wide geography competition) and it being summer, which meant it wouldn't get dark for about another half hour - time enough to walk at least most of the way to the town. It was another stroke of luck that we found the first hotel I wanted to try- it was in a run-down monastry complex that looked practically deserted, and I was just going to try the building in which I could at least see a light on in (but no visible door at all!) when some lad leading a bike (seems like the thing to do at midnight. Earlier we had passed more pounding bass, disco lights and young'uns milling around in one little village street than in all of Moscow) came by and understood my shocking Russian enough to point us in the right direction.

The place looked nice enough, despite people milling around carrying towels and basins, leaving me in doubt as to such facilities as showers, or in fact even bathrooms at all. The man at the counter looked bemused as two girls trudged in at midnight and asked in halting Russian (placed under this pressure of the moment, I forgot half the phrase I had painstakingly learnt!) if there was a room. There wasn't. But, miracle of miracles, the manner of this refusal wasn't the 'Nyet!' accompanied by the glare and turning away we'd received in Moscow. He actually SMILED, looked HELPFUL, and indicated for us to sit down.

15 minutes later a kindly old chap showed up and gestured for us to follow him. Follow him we did, through the pitch-black through back streets and on for ages, but everyone had seemed so nice so far that I gladly didn't give it any thought. Finally, we arrived! And now, now I could bask in the sweet warm light of gloating, for we had been provided with a very nice, cheap bed in an old couple's house. I had been jokingly saying 'Well, it's the countryside, we'll just rock up and get a room a some farmer's house for the night' all along when confronting Charis' questioning of my logistical planning, and here it was, so easily acquired! Suzdal was so very far in my good books already. It progressed even further, when the kindly man's wife turned out to be a very kindly babushka, who asked us about Australia and why we were here - we managed to attain some little form of communication, through miming and my Polish and a few scant Russian words. She displayed the common Eastern European apetite and hospitality when, after asking if we wanted dinner (it was around 1am by now!) and me miming 'okay, but just a tiiiny bit' with my thumb and forefinger, she produced 6 gigantic freshly pickled cucumbers, half a loaf of bread and slices of some sort of devon, I kid you not, 3 centimeters thick - I can only imagine what Russians think when they come to Australia and are faced with devon sliced a millimeter thin. The lady also produced some soft of black tea which even without milk, in which state I usually hate it, was the best damn tea I've ever had. It left strange cluggly berry-looking bits at the bottom, and was made by adding hot water to old, already brewed tea and giant leaves, but it was bliss! Unfortunately, my Russian didn't stretch to asking what variety of tea it was, or how it was made, or if I could bribe her with money to give me some. And so I shall forever be haunted, not knowing what it was, and never having it again.

We got an early start the next morning, feeling nice and refreshed and all the psychologically-better for having found some friendly individuals. The churches were many indeed, and plentiful. Photos serve better as a description, but they were all very nice.

The only other thing worth mentioning is one cathedral (the interior of which is pictured in the gallery) we went into, where after 5 mins of looking around and entering a side area, we were suddenly set-upon by a man in black, urgently ushering us into the main hall, along with other visitors, and locking the door behind us. We really had no conception of what these diabolical men in black were up to, and just stood around joking that we were going to be gassed. Well dammit, you never know, people had been THAT nuts and awful to us in Moscow....

Anyway, the mystery was finally solved when they all went up onto a slight wooden platform, one with a folder in hand. Obviously they were going to sing. Unfortunately, the leader VERY pointedly said no photos or filming, and Charis at this point couldn't turn on the video camera to at least record the sound, lest it beep. But I really don't think it matters anyway, and that it's better this way. I'm a novice to actual church-going, and to religious singing, but listening to them was beautiful, and emotional, and memorable and spiritual. I can't say I've ever had anything I'd call a 'spiritual experience' before, but if this wasn't I don't know what it. I got shivers all over and nearly burst out crying.

The more I see of European churches, the more I can so easily understand the sway that religion held, and still holds here. Maybe in Australia some find the church comforting, agree with its tenets, bond with their fellow church-goers. But I never saw the attraction of the plain and simple churches and the speeches that seemed so illogical and ill-contrived and hypocritical and, sometimes, cruel. In Europe, while I feel still nil in the way of wanting to belong to an organized religion, I can understand how powerfully drawn people could have been to it in the past, how it could have spread. If you are a peasant, living in dirt and filth, struggling to survive against poverty and filth...or even if you are comfortable enough, but bored by your grey and dreary surrounds, how wonderful it would have been to glimpse into a tall and beautiful church, see the flying angels with their banners glittering with gold and jewels, hear stories of eternal peace, punishment for your vile enemies the evildoers. At to hear singing like in that cathedral, that moved me so very much even though I dismiss anything religious, and have seen some of the greatest sights in the world, must have been very, very addictive.

Embarrasingly, I was reading Nietzche at this time - The Birth of Tragedy - so there's a video of me straight after the performance, enthusiastically ranting on about how right Nietzche was, that music, in its non-reprosentational, indiscernible and Dionysian nature, is the closest we come to 'god', or the ultimate reality, as it were; while art such as painting is merely an artist's representation of the physical world of 'phenomena', which are representations themselves, music gives us direct access to the underlying fundamental reality of being, the so-called 'will'. Now, my grasp of philosophy is atrocious, but I do feel I can agree; musics' fundamental (to me, at least), abstract nature in relation to other arts, and in and of itself, and yet its ability to move so powerfully, seems like something 'spiritual', beyond my limited comprehension.

as for what it was like on a non-philosophical level, I really know nothing about music, so I can't describe it. I suppose it's traditional Russian orthodox chanting/singing (it had elements of both, ranging from deep deep melody to such clear, beautiful high notes that I couldn't comprehend that one of these very manly gentlement were producing them. Surely the Russians had a secret stash of eunuchs!), I assume heightened by the unique acoustics of the church dome. They had CDs of their performances for sale, of all things, but I was too afraid that a recording wouldn't capture how incredible it really was, and that I would spoil the perfect memory, that I didn't buy it.

Well, I guess I'll have to start going to church more often! And stop reading philosophy, before I develop an anuerism.
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