“They shrug their shoulders and talk endlessly about the terrible, hopeless state of things”
“Russian must be the only language in which one hears so frequently over the phone ‘I’m on the plane’”
“My first impressions were the familiar musty smell, the layer of grime over everything and the darkness”
I flew to Moscow on an early morning empty flight. The purpose of my trip was so visit my friends that I had made during my 18 months living and working in Moscow and to meet a few more Tripbods. I had a very contented feeling of returning to a place I know well rather than the apprehension of travelling to a new place, so the journey gave me time to get some things done. I studied Russian at University and speak Russian so during my time in Moscow I really got to know the people, their ways, and I fell in love with the city.
As soon as we landed, we all jumped up, and the Russians got on their phones to tell their friends of their arrival. Russian must be the only language that hears so frequently over the phone ‘I’m on the plane’. We were shortly told to sit back down again. A small lady with bleached hair, a stoop and a medical-blue face mask boarded with a grey gun in hand that shone a light to read our temperatures. Russians are paranoid about letting disease in, which is why you need an HIV test to get a multi-entrance visa or work permit for Russia. As she came down the aisle pointing her gun at passengers in turn, almost no one could suppress a smirk at the absurdity and pointlessness of the exercise. It was a happy moment when I really felt that, yes here I am again in this strange and wonderful country.
I sped through security and passed taxi drivers, who disperse themselves amongst the crowds, making themselves known with a barely audible, “taxi, devushka, taxi”. You need to get passed this uncomfortable environment as quickly as possible and get on the AeroExpress – the fast train from Domodedovo to Paveletskiy Vokzal. My first impressions were the familiar musty smell, the layer of grime over everything and the darkness. I wondered whether, if they replaced the low yellow lights in the Metro with some bright bulbs, it would modernize the space or confirm its backwards place in its murky history.
On the metro carriage a man, reeking of a 20-year drinking binge, grabbed my suitcase. With less shock than you’d imagine, I turned around and attempted to take back my bag. But he was determined to look after it for me, ‘relax, don’t worry, stop worrying, take your hand away, I will look after it for you, you don’t have to worry until Mayakovksaya, I will watch it for you, I’m not going to run off with it’. In a strange way I trusted him but still decided it would be sensible to keep hold of it. So he politely gave up his seat and let me sit guard of my bag. Just as I thought that the episode was over and let my own far away thoughts take over, I felt a warm pungent breath on my neck as he leant in to my ear to make some comment about keeping hold of a bag, ‘hehehe’ he mused to himself watching my stiff determination to keep a tight grip on my bag.
I arrived at my place of stay after dragging my heavy suitcase up and down, up and down, endless underground bridges and tunnels. I was pleased at how second nature these tunnels still are to me but it struck me that just riding the metro could be an adventure, or an ordeal, for any foreign visitor. I did a very quick turnaround at the flat and flagged down a taxi to the restaurant to meet my friends. I deserved it after my commitment to public transport earlier. A muddy Lada pulled over and I negotiated a fee of £4 to Kitai Gorod, a good twenty-minute ride. We weaved our way through the four lanes of traffic, discussing the war in Afghanistan. To be precise, I received a lesson rather than took part in a discussion. ‘Ponimaete?’ (Understand?) finished every sentence. He told me that roads in Russia are dreadful because officials steal all the money, he fired stats at me comparing government expenditure in China, USA and Russia. He then told me about the Russian experience of Afghanistan. The conversation always leaves me with a feeling of, ‘ok then what can we do?’ With the inevitable regrettable answer of, ‘nothing’. This is the corner or powerlessness that Russians talk themselves in to. They shrug their shoulders and talk endlessly about the terrible, hopeless state of things.
I arrived at Propaganda, a great restaurant in Moscow that serves very reasonably priced food and has DJs from 12-6am. It is very accessible for foreigners and has been mentioned in enough guidebooks that you’ll see numerous table of Europeans and Americans here. I had got the times confused and arrived an hour and a half too early so I went to a cafe on Maroseika Street called Volkonsky. It is a very cosy place where tea is given enough adjectives and ritual to justify the £4 price tag. There is no standard pricing in Moscow. Take tea for example, in Cofemania (a pleasant, modern but coffee shop not unlike a London run-of-the-mill cafe) it is £8, whereas in Pushkin (one of the most ornate, beautiful and elegant restaurants in Moscow) it is only £1. I sat at a communal table and received curious stares as I began to read in English and scribble ideas on a napkin, in English. Russians have no qualms about staring and quite often whispering about you.
I caught up on Moscow news from one of the free newspapers, the Moscow News. It reminded me of this particular Russian expat rhetoric which looks down upon and mocks Russian politics and culture. My friends and I agree that this only strengthens our loyalty to the Russian people, feeling that they rarely get a fair deal in English-language communication. They do have funny peculiarities and behaviour, which is very easy to snigger at, but reverting to this status-quo prevents any more insightful investigation of what is happening in this country.
I went to meet my friends, and waited a while at the bar, with a beer, reading my book. It realized how comfortable I feel in this city. Once you get used to the stares and turn them in to something positive rather than threatening, you can enjoy floating around in this strange land, drifting and sitting and thinking. I find that the flow of ideas is slower in Moscow: they are not as impatient to change things as we are in London. We have an insatiable need to innovate in London, to throw out the old and welcome the new, until it becomes old a few months later. Moscow has a more cyclical flow of ideas, perhaps to do with their geographical, cultural and political isolation.
My friends arrived and it was just like yesterday that I saw them (in fact in was 7 months ago). We all ordered a Chicken Caesar Salad – a Moscow delicacy. Russian tastes are suitably inclined towards the rich, creamy, salty, ‘salad’ characteristics of the dish. I found that my appetite for this kind of food had declined after some time in London.
My two Russian girl friends fired questions at me about how London is different from Moscow: what people do in London, what’s cool there. I gave my experience of finding it much hastier; activities are fitted into much smaller time segments and are sandwiched very close together. I said that London is a hive of innovation and ideas, that there are too many opportunities to keep up with. I can only give my own experience, which is a lucky and privileged one. I don’t suppose everyone in London feels like this at the moment.
My first day left me with a very cosy feeling – that I had returned to a familiar and friendly city where I am welcome.
“It’s also an ‘authentic Russian experience’ dealing with the usually difficult shop assistants”.
“My favourite city was feeling a bit more hostile but I refused to get angry at it, in case I provoked the beast even more”.
“Nothing is easy in Moscow, it is the opposite of convenience”.
I woke up late after a late-ish night and decided got myself organized with my Russian SIM card. You can buy a Russian pay as you go SIM for 150 rubles (≈£3) which has 150 rubles of credit on once you activate it. If you have Russian friends it is definitely worth doing as it will save you a package on your home phone bill and it’s much easier for them to call you. It’s also an ‘authentic Russian experience’ dealing with the usually difficult shop assistants.
I wanted to do some work on my first day so took a short walk from Biblioteka Lenina past the Kremlin and up Tverskaya to Kamegerskiy Pereulok where they have just opened a new Starbucks. They also have Prime Star, a Pret a Manger knock-off, and a Pain Quotidien. I tried to use Akademia for WiFi, to not immediately revert to a familiar chain but they didn’t have any plug sockets, so I went to PQ. Akademia is a good place for pizza in the evening or a very good business lunch, a set 2-3 course menu. If you want to know if they have a business lunch, it’s the same phrase in Russian – Business LANCH.
Unfortunately after a few contented hours doing my work in Moscow, I realised my wallet had been stolen somewhere since dinner the night before. My favourite city was feeling a bit more hostile but I refused to get angry at it, in case I provoked the beast even more. Instead I headed home (luckily my metro ticket was in a separate pocket) and cancelled my cards. I think my time living in Moscow taught me how to be calm and collected about dealing with difficult situations. Nothing is easy in Moscow, it is the opposite of convenience. People like to stand in your way, erect obstacles in your path, and generally be unhelpful. You learn to shrug your shoulders and find another way around it, and you become a little bit more Russian every day. Money is here one day, gone the next. Better to spend it all as soon as you get it.
Friday evening was just a few hours away from lift off and texts were flying around. We met atSolyanka for dinner. Again a reasonably-priced, slightly bohemian, well designed, restaurant/club (they remove the tables at 12 to make way for the dance floor) with music that is too techno for the space. After that we wanted to try a new club called Rolling Stones, apparently the new Simachev in town, but did not get in due to full capacity. You are more likely NOT to get in to a club than to get in in Moscow. So unless you’re feeling ambitious and ready to take taxies to several different places without losing the will to go on, just to get in to one of the finest Moscow establishments (Soho Rooms, Krysha, Opera), head somewhere ‘democratic’ as they call it (Propaganda, Krisis Zhanr). We went to Bonnie & Clyde on Tverskaya– a tacky bar with loud cheesy music, chandeliers and black velvet, gold rimmed chairs. We had a great time. At 3am it was time for some Karaoke. The place with private rooms on Tsvetnoi Bulvar was full so we ended up in Etazh on Belorusskaya, suffering with enjoyment communal karaoke until the morning.
“The magnificent shapes of the cityscape are spectacularly lit up and the disarray of life swept aside by a tumultuous social, political and cultural development is blanked out”.
“Driving around Moscow at night gives me a great rush of excitement – the frustration of the Russian daily grind is put to rest and the excitement of the unruly excess wakes up”.
Saturday began late. We woke up at 3.30pm and made arrangements to meet for lunch at 5pm. We went to Filial, a new restaurant recently opened by the owners of Propaganda and Krisis Zhanr. Just like the other restaurants, it’s cosy and comfy and reasonably-priced. It’s a nice place but slightly lacking in depth of character, as it is brand new. I have no doubt it will only get better with time.
After a large meal, we drove home via Correa’s to get the best Honey Cake in town to take home and eat in front of a film. After a relaxing evening in, we went out at midnight to Sky Bar – a bar/restaurant on the 34th floor of Swissotel. You pay for the view in the prices (cocktails are 800 rubles, nearly £20) but it is a great place for a relaxing, civilized couple of drinks away from the chaos of the city centre.
Moscow at night is my favourite view. The magnificent shapes of the cityscape are spectacularly lit up and the disarray of life swept aside by a tumultuous social, political and cultural development is blanked out. Driving around Moscow at night gives me a great rush of excitement – the frustration of the Russian daily grind is put to rest and the excitement of the unruly excess wakes up.
“As the little lady swept the bunches of twigs over me and started hitting me with them, the heat grew to an intense level and I started to scream and laugh at the same time”.
On Sunday we went to Krasnopresnenskiy Banyi. It is not one of the most upmarket bath houses in Moscow but it does have the best steam. It costs 850 rubles for 2 hours and an extra 400 rubles for Vrenniki – a massage with birch twigs. The Banya comes with a lot of cultural history, ritual, associations and customs but you can easily go along and follow what everyone else is doing. If you can go with a Russian friend or someone who has been before, it will be more enjoyable. It was the first time that I’d had the Vrenniki massage in the banya and found it very hot and painful. As the little lady swept the bunches of twigs over me and started hitting me with them, the heat grew to an intense level and I started to scream and laugh at the same time. I wanted to run away but her words of ‘be healthy, get rid of the demons, relax, goodness comes in’ reassured me that this would be worth it. Finally after hitting me front and back she let me go, making sure that I plunged in to the ice bath with my head underneath the water 3 times. My entire body was pink with large white blotches – a sign that I had done Banya properly.
We spent the evening in a new establishment from the owners of Jean-Jacques, a very good French restaurant where you can draw on the tables with crayons provided. The new place is an English version of Jean Jacques called the John Donne pub. It serves British fodder and plays football matches but it is still unmistakably Russian with the table service and wooden chairs and tables, more suited to a bistro than a pub.
For the other few days I was enjoying a bit of working-leisure, using Moscow’s abundance of WIFI cafes to keep up with business developments. On Monday the first snow fell and I was delighted to find my office in a cosy Pain Quotidien looking out at the fresh metre of freshly dumped snow.
Moscow is wonderful at this time of year, if you’re lucky with the snow. The temperature is just right – between nought and minus five – which means that skiing, snowboarding and ice skating are all easily accessible. Many people are uncertain about a holiday to Moscow and usually I would not recommend it to go alone. However with a friend at the other end with Tripbod who can help you out with some good places to go and things to do, you will be able to see the warmth of the Russian people and skip the unfriendly reception that is an out-of-date and misleading preconception.
I connected with Baira, Tripbod in Moscow to plan my trip.