Moscow Ne Rabotayet

Trip Start Mar 11, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2006

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Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Crash we did not though we had a bit of a nervous laugh when, just after the moment we roughly slammed into the night-shadowed runway to begin our skid to the terminal that evening, half of the ceiling panels crashed loudly to the ground.  Our luck ran out temporarily upon arrival in Moscow, though it was only a minor snag.
During our travels, as we re-evaluated times, places, and priorities to come, we decided that considering both the cool experiences to be had in the place of my family's heritage, as well as the considerable difficulty and expense of obtaining the visa required to enter, that we ought to spend more time in Russia.  We didn't realize it at the time that we booked the flight, but even with the generous buffer time we'd ordered on the visa for either side of coming and going, our permission to enjoy the hospitality of the Russian Federation was not valid until June 7 ... and we had landed in Moscow at 10:30 PM on June 6.  I was actually able to get my stamp to sneak through by playing the grumpy Russian annoyed at spending his day on a plane that would make Evil Knievel soil himself, but as the agent was inspecting Ryan's passport and noticing the perplexed look on his face in response to the official's questions in Russian, he noticed the discrepancy as well as the fact that we were traveling together, and hauled me back into no-man's-land in order for the two of us to sit in a corner for an hour and a half.  Not strangers to pointless waits in uncomfortable places, it was fun as I practiced some jailhouse tunes for the other detainees, but we were faced with the twin problems of a) not being able to contact our hosts from inside the holding pen to let them know we'd been detained, and b) being too late out of the airport to catch the metro as planned all the way across the massive city to their apartment.  Fortunately, our new German Turkish inmate friend let me use his cell to call Alexander Lvovich (very important to use the patronymic when addressing an elder for the first time) and, when we were the very first people to enter Russian on June 7, 2006, at 12:01 AM, we were still able, to our great relief, to grab our bags from Lost & Found without them being pilfered.
We still had the problem of getting across town at that hour with the metro closed and taxi driver demanding 3,000 rubles ($120), and became resigned to another night at Ye Olde Airport Bench Inne until another taxi driver with nothing else to do agreed to take us for 1,000 rubles.  He certainly did earn his fare, hoofing us 40 minutes across town, but ruined his chances for a big lovely tip when he tried to mass up the clearly agreed-upon fare last-minute with a neverbefore -mentioned 20% "baggage charge".  Once on the right street, with our bags firmly on our backs though, we were able to walk away from his halfhearted threats to call the police (sadly not an uncommon traveling experience).
Miracle of miracles, we actually found the correct building and apartment and found Sasha at the door at 2:30 AM waiting to let us unto the kitchen to feed us sausages and tea.  Sasha (the friendly form of Alexander) is the brother of one of my aunt's good friends in Chicago and, though we had no relation and distant familial connection to his clan at the start, his family was so wonderful to us during our time in Moscow.
The challenging part about coming to Russia and Ukraine was, although I thought my language skills fared fine during my trip the previous fall to Kiev, I didn't realize until this time how reliant I had still been on my parents to fill in the gaps where I couldn't remember a word.  No such safety net this time, it was a very interesting challenge to breakfast with the babushka of the family the next morning, though I believe I understood a number of things well enough, including the facts that she was a ballerina in her youth who married the orchestra conductor, and that tvorog , a Russian mix between cottage cheese and spoilt milk, is absolutely vile.
Later that morning we boarded the Moscow Metro, said rightly to be the most beautiful in the world.  Each station really is chock full of statues, murals, and stained glass windows, so far underground as to make one feel as though you it was to appreciate a cross between the Louvre and a bomb shelter.  We were both quite impressed with the efficiency of the subway system, though we were soon to learn that it was in fact the only thing in Moscow that does work properly.  Hoping to catch a glimpse of Lenin resting in his mausoleum to complete our trifecta of dead dictators on display around the world (having already kicked it with Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh ), we were dismayed to be told upon arrival to the facility on Red Square that "Lenin ne rabotayet ."  I was a little thrown off as the literal translation for that phrase is "Lenin is not working."  Not sure whether he'd either blown a fuse or gone on strike, we consoled ourselves by brunching at the Sbarro's right by Red Square.
"Lenin ne rabotayet ."  Sbarro's .  This would become a common theme.
The huge shopping mall literally bordering Red Square and across from Lenin speaking as loudly for the country's new capitalism as did the extreme difficulty and expense of obtaining the visa speak for their lingering paranoia of foreigners, we strolled by all your favorite brand boutiques after doing our cultural thing for the day and winding our way through the Byzantine maze of St. Basil's Cathedral.  You know the one that I mean, with the psychedelic onion dome, and in the process meeting a very nice family from Tennessee who just happened to be the neighbors of one of the kids I oriented at Berkeley as a CalSO counselor way back in 2002.
A fruitless search for Rama Revealed, the 4th book in a silly science fiction series I picked up and insisted on reading along the way despite the increasing degrees of awfulness with each new installment, did turn up an internet cafe for me to be able to catch up with Couchsurfers in Moscow to make plans with for our time there.  Soon we were back at the apartment eating with Yuka the hyperactive family dog nipping at our crumbs and begging for more, and made plans with the kids (Lyova and Lena, a little older and younger than us, respectively) for the next day and beyond.
Every good family has a Misha, and this family's version (the oldest brother, already moved out with his own young family) was to take us out the next day.  First, of course, how silly to think we might go 15 minutes without eating, was breakfast, dodging tvorog set before me while telling Ryan "no dude, it's super good, you should have a big bite", and the surreal experience of my notion that I speak Russian as well as a kindergartner thrown right out the window by Misha's daughter Sofia who was 5 going on 42 and could run intellectual circles around me in her language.  Though, to my credit(?), she still did like to giggle with me at my barnyard animal and fart noises, and thus they comprised a good portion of our conversation.
Misha, knowing I was interested in space, took us to the huge exhibition grounds where, in the places of what used to be beautiful displays about each of the USSR's member states, are now expos on different and diverse areas of interest.  He insisted that Sputnik itself was there, which made me a bit skeptical as I was almost certain that late 1950s space technology was just advanced enough to put the basketball-sized transmitter up but certainly not to retrieve it before its orbit decayed and it burnt up in the atmosphere, but I was game.  Perhaps he meant that Sputnik was a type of lawnmower, as the space exhibition had recently been replaced by a gardening show.  They still did have an airplane-turned-museum outside and I got to play with the buttons in the cockpit until the docent, perhaps realizing, or not, that I understood Russian, asked Misha, "He is adult, not child, why is he pushing all the buttons?"  Still feeling spacey, we boarded a huge Ferris wheel that we learned halfway up was built in 1953 and barely rabotayet .  Also I didn't know beforehand that Ryan is not a big fan of heights though I found his discomfort hilarious until a sharp crack by one of the metal supporting struts made me a convert to acrophobia as well.  Finally, we went to the space needle nearby for another elevated look at the city ... which of course "ne rabotayet ", but instead of Sbarro's for comfort, we got dropped off at war memorial.  That night we attended Lena's excellent violin recital and celebrated with McDonald's, beers on Pushkinskaya Parkm and meeting 2 other CSers Sasha and Maria at the local Coffee Haus .  Oh, and when we got home late that night, we found out that the pirated Da Vinci Code we'd found ... ne rabotayet .
The next day we set out for crack #2 to visit our embalmed Soviet friend.  Lenin ne rabotayet .  We went to Sbarro's .
It was then near our deadline to register our visit with the police, another cumbersome visa requirement that can yield massive penalties if not fulfilled, and we found Gozilla's Hostel willing to help us out.  For all Russia's changes since the breakup of the Soviet Union, tourism is not something they've grown to really understand: our visas to China, India, and Vietnam were a snap, taking a day apiece for a reasonable price.  But to obtain permission to enter Russia it took 2 weeks and $100 for the visa, $50 for "rush" service (which means you'll get it in a week plus- not "or minus"- 4 days), $30 for a fake invitation from a tourist company in the US (my uncle could have done it from Russian but it would have taken a month and cost as much anyhow), and then $25-30 to register once there, which we learned but did not quite obey one needed to do each time one arrives in a new city so they can track where you are.
Lyova had arranged for us to have a fun evening with his medical school friends, and that we did, starting with stories around his hookah and occasionally waving off more shots of his quite potent moonshine brandy.  No session is complete without at least a small meal to go with it, and we indulged in but could not handle the chickencheese that I hid in Ryan's shirt pocket when he wasn't paying attention and that he subsequently hid in the vacuum cleaner.  Russians don't like when you don't like their food, hard to tell if they prefer a polite refusal or simply finding the offending edibles scattered in dark corners of their apartment for months to come.  We made it out to their favorite club and had a tossin ' good time, no doubt leaving as handfulls but legends in the eyes of the fun staff.
OK ... this time is it gonna work?
"Lenin ne rabotayet ."  Sbarro's .
I might point out here that it was not simply that Lenin was closed for an indefinite period of time that coincided with our time in Moscow.  Each time we were rebuffed we were also assured of his working status the next time we tried.  Perhaps that was code I didn't pick up for a bribe?  Who knows.  I might also point out that we did keep frequenting the same American chain establishment past the point of Ryan obtaining his pizza-for-the-country not because we are uncultured or unappreciative of the Russian food available, but it's just that it sometimes take something familiar and comforting to ease the dual sting of Lenin's rejections and the lingering rancid taste of tvorog in the back of the throat.
Always ones to bounce back, we tried the Armory, which contains the world famous Faberge eggs.  "Faberge ne rabotayet ".  Sbarro's again.
OK, how about the KGB museum, which "ne rabotayet " in a legendary fashion, requiring both $40 admission and a letter directly from one's ambassador.  And, since there was a Sbarro's nearby, we went to check out the Bolshoi Ballet, which, of course, also (say it with me now) "ne rabotayet ".
Fortunately, Godzilla's and our registration did buck the trend and actually work, and we got ourselves directed to a rad expat bar to watch England vs Portugal in what would be the first few of many hours spent yelling at the boob tube about soccer/football over the next month.  The Boar Bar did know how to host a game-watching as the place was packed, the Pepperoni Burger satisfied even Caveman Hallahan , and the waitresses were always about to refill your test tube of beer.
Happy that England won (Beckham won our loyalty via haircut), we met Lyova and more of his friends once again to revel in our last partial night in Moscow before getting to our station at 2 AM to board the surprisingly comfortable seated sleeper to St. Petersburg .

Moral of the Story: Always closed and  "ne rabotayet " make Vladimir Ilyich a dull boy.
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