M Otis Beard's Russian Travelogue
26542 Curiosities served
2002-07-19 5:12 PM
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It's been almost three weeks since I arrived in Moscow, and if I weren't such a wordy bastard, I'd be speechless.
I don't yet have Internet access at home, and I've been visiting relatives in the country for most of the last two weeks, so I hope those of you who read this journal regularly will forgive me for the lack of a recent update. There's a LOT on the way, I promise.
June 30th was my big day. I hopped a shuttle to the airport and wrestled my bags onto a cart, and then I waited several lifetimes for the line to move forward. I must say, I'm not particularly impressed by the new security measures in place at LAX, which I firmly believe could be breached by anyone determined enough to really try, but I will congratulate the airport and the airlines on making great progress in advancing the technology used to annoy and inconvenience passengers. If I recall correctly, the airlines begged for a big chunk of tax dollars shortly after September 11th in order to offset their losses due to the lack of business that followed the terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, they laid off a large percentage of their ground personnel... and then, (clever, clever!) when they got the money, they somehow forgot to rehire the people whose jobs had been cut. A lone harassed ticket agent served a seemingly endless serpentine line of anxious and upset passengers, and absolutely nobody was happy about it.
I was told to arrive early in order to board my flight on time, but early wasn't early enough. Fortunately, everyone else on the flight was also stuck in a line for hours on end, and indeed, everyone on every other flight was in the same predicament. All flights were delayed the day I left L.A., and I got the distinct impression that all flights were being delayed every day as a matter of course. Next time, I'm just going to pack a lunch, tie some weather balloons to a lawn chair, and hope for favorable winds.
The flight to New York was blissfully uneventful. There was a movie, which I couldn't hear because the headset was so badly designed, and a meal, which purported to be scrambled eggs, but (in an ironic foreshadowing of the Russian cuisine I am now growing accustomed to) was actually a large pile of dill with a small amount of egg mixed in. A limp, wretched sausage was served on the side, and I have never before seen a more forlorn and obvious cylinder of slaughterhose sweepings posing as a piece of meat. It was as if the airline had obtained their in-flight meals by plundering the dumpster in back of some State-run welfare hospital.
We arrived late at JFK, and I was a little antsy about it because I knew that my friend Ranjit Bhatanagar was waiting there to meet me and pass the time between flights over drinks. To make things worse, there was another aircraft still boarding at our gate, so we had to sit for another 45 minutes or so after landing before we were allowed to deplane. By the time I hit the gate and found a phone, Ranjit had given up and was in his car, ready to head back to Brooklyn. The airline representative assured me that my flight to Moscow would be boarding on time, so we decided to call it a wash, and Ranjit went home.
My flight did board on time, it's true... but someone had flushed a pillowcase in one of the restrooms on board, so they made us sit there for another two hours while they figured out the problem and fixed it. Damn you, Delta! I could have been spending that time with a FRIEND having DRINKS. You owe me bigtime, you bastards.
I was fascinated by the faces around me on the very full flight to Moscow. I made a game of trying to guess who was Russian, who was American, and who was something else. In most cases, it was impossible to tell just by looking, but there are a few dead giveaways that I managed to pick up on. Gold teeth, there's a pretty good clue. Square-toed shoes, that's another. I also noticed that many Russians seemed to be wearing styles that haven't been popular in the States since the 1980s.
The airline does offer a choice of coffee or tea on flights to Moscow, but I don't think anyone asked for coffee, and I wonder if they actually had any on board. Anyone who had dared to express a preference for coffee over tea would probably have been forcibly thrown out the emergency exit at 30,000 feet anyway. Russians love their tea, possibly even more than the English do. The stews brought the tea cart through at least seven times between New York and Moscow.
I slept a bit, and when I awoke, it was dark outside. There were lights below me, and I knew we were no longer in the States because of the utter lack of a discernible structure in the layout of the town below. We were over Iceland, and not a grid in sight.
I didn't see anything at all of Western Europe. The cloud cover was total. Lenin's sealed train? I was on Lenin's sealed plane, swaddled in white fluff, and surrounded by militant tea drinkers. I drank my tea like a good proletariat, ignored the in-flight movie, and slept as much as possible.
The clouds cleared shortly before we began our approach for landing at Sheremetyevo. I practically pressed my nose against the window as we shed altitude and the Russian forest gave way to farms, hamlets, villages, towns, and urban sprawl. At the edge of the city, I noticed an oddly-shaped lake, surrounded by forest, with an old trawler parked in the middle. A long gangplank stretched from the trawler to the shore, and I wondered what it might be for. As it turned out, this was Valkush Lake, just a short walk from my new home in Lytkarino, and I would be swimming there in less than 24 hours.
I still had to jump through the hoops presented by Passport Control and Customs, but overall, getting off the plane in Moscow was easier than getting on in Los Angeles. Passport Control is a mere formality, assuming that you have your visa in order, but as an introduction to Russia, they made all the foreigners wait and wait and wait in one line for an hour or so while five or six queues of Russian citizens were processed. Some overstuffed fathead just ahead of me began complaining loudly about how long things were taking. “We’re AMERICANS,” he whined. “They’re treating us like FOREIGNERS or something. Don’t these guys get it?” I distanced myself from him as much as possible for fear of being mistakenly associated with him. We came in on the same flight, and I had already had quite enough of him for one lifetime. He was the worst kind of American abroad: loud, stupid, openly disdainful of ‘foreign’ language and culture, and convinced that America is directly supervised on a daily basis by God almighty. He was the kind of American who wants to take America with him everywhere he goes, the kind of American who travels halfway around the world and then eats all his meals at McDonald’s. The dumb son of a bitch didn’t speak a word of Russian, and he had come to Russia to distribute bibles.
You never can tell what’s going to happen when you pass through Customs, but if you fill out the necessary paperwork carefully and put a bored look on your face, it’s nothing to fear. They won’t allow foreigners to leave Russia with more cash than they declare on the way in, but there are ways around that, so after grabbing my bag off the luggage carousel, I chose the express line used by people with nothing to declare. A bored-looking official ran my duffel bag and carry-on through an x-ray machine and waved me through. Over in the other line, it looked like Missionary Boy was about to get a nice cavity search, compliments of the Russian Federation. I’m not often amused by the misfortune of others, but in this case I was glad to make an exception.
I had another piece of luggage checked, a huge blue Anvil case that my wife hates for some reason. As it was quite heavy, I was told at LAX that it would have to be shipped via air freight… so after fighting my way gently through the press of people outside the Customs perimeter and locating my wife and our driver, I asked to be taken to the freight terminal. Naturally, there was a line there too. Unfortunately, after much gesticulating and the ceremonial examination of every single piece of paper in my possession, I was told (with my wife translating) that my Anvil case was not there, and was advised to return to the passenger terminal to look for it on the same luggage carousel where my duffel bag had turned up. This made me very uneasy, as it meant I would have to penetrate the security perimeter somehow, and then take another trip through Customs, whether my Anvil case showed up or not. I was also a little worried about the big blue box being stolen, but the sheer weight of the thing made that less than likely.
Getting through the security perimeter, which at Sheremetyevo is delineated by high walls of hastily erected pressboard and plexiglass, was a simple matter of pushing my way through the surrounding crowd and walking unchallenged through the Customs gate, which was momentarily unattended. I found my case pretty quickly, and discovered happily that, given a good push, it slid pretty easily across the smooth airport floor… but, bummer of bummers, the Customs officials had returned to the unmanned gate in the space of the two or three minutes it had taken me to find my case. As I approached, one of them planted himself directly in my path and, apparently wondering why I was passing through Customs a second time, began asking questions in rapid-fire Russian. I replied in English, and although he understood not a word, the obvious complexity of my situation was made clear to him by my tone of voice and the theatricality of my gestures. I could see on his face that he was thinking about how much work it might be to deal with me and my incomprehensible problem, so I redoubled my efforts, rolling my eyes and slapping my forehead and shaking my head and shrugging, then gesturing wildly towards the gate, then at my luggage, then back towards the carousel. Suddenly his eyes glazed over with disinterest and he waved me on through. He didn’t even put my Anvil case through the x-ray machine.
Russians tend to be pushy in crowds and in traffic, but they also tend to get the hell out of the way when outgunned. The crush of people just outside the security perimeter was as heavy as before, but a path magically opened up as big, heavy-duty me pushed my big, heavy-duty Anvil case noisily across the floor to the outer doors. I had arrived.
Hoping to wheedle a free upgrade to first class, I wore a suit on the flight from L.A. Suits, and especially ties, make me hideously uncomfortable, and I avoid them whenever possible. Wearing a suit and tie for fifteen-odd hours of cramped, delayed air travel was about as close to a worst-case scenario, clothing-wise, as I care to get. I was hot and dirty and eager to get home, ditch the monkey suit, and have a bath, stat. The very last thing I wanted to do was to go to a party straight from the airport and meet a lot of people, but this is exactly where our driver, Valodye, had been instructed to take me. Since the company was picking up the tab, I couldn’t really complain… but I wasn’t very happy at the prospect, and I said as much to my wife. Valodye took stock of the situation immediately, whipped out his cell phone, and made a call. Minutes later I was enjoying a hot shower in the gym of a luxury hotel very near the airport.
There is a shadow economy, based on crime, in every nation on Earth. Whatever is outlawed – drugs, guns, prostitution, gambling – somebody is making some underground money on it. Russia is no exception to this rule, but here the shadow economy runs much deeper than in the States, and that’s how I got my hot shower. Vice is just the tip of the iceberg here: most of Russia’s shadow economy involves the movement of perfectly legal commodities and services, and the whole thing runs not on currency, but on a vast network of favors. Valodye called a friend, who called a friend, who had a friend working at the hotel, and by the time we got there, everything was arranged. They even had my favorite toothpaste and deodorant waiting for me, wrapped in a clean bath towel.
When we arrived at the Millennium Cafe, the party was just beginning. They had a pretty good spread laid out, with cold cuts wrapped around hunks of garlicky cream cheese laced with fresh dill, hors d'oeuvres of all kinds seasoned liberally with dill, a riot of fresh fruit arranged enticingly on a bed of dill, and plenty of cold Belgian beer (no dill). A “band” had been hired for the occasion – two guys with a guitar and a synthesizer who sang and pretended to play while the synthesizer churned out stored musical selections. Behind them, a big screen TV showed nonstop semipornographic French fashion shows. I had been told that the company director who organized the party was very big on karaoke, so after a brief huddle with the “musicians” and a quick look through their songbook, I gave the crowd a pretty fair rendition of the Beatles’ ‘Back in the USSR’.
We left as soon as we could without offending anyone, and Valodye drove us home. Our apartment is in Lytkarino, a suburb in the southeast quarter of greater Moscow. It’s a strange sight to American eyes – the surrounding forest, the plants growing wild everywhere, the rarity of sidewalks, and the neglected roads make it seem like a quaint little hamlet, but Lytkarino is home to many thousands of Russians. The few houses in our town are all very old, and nearly everyone lives in one of the many large apartment buildings that rise imposingly from among the trees of Valkush forest. The scattered houses predate the town, which was founded in 1957, and the oldest apartment buildings here were built in Kruschev’s time.
Russian apartment buildings take some getting used to. There are several distinctive styles, all associated with the regime under which they were built: the thick-walled, high-ceilinged solidity of Stalin, the slapped-up featureless rectangles of Kruschev with their boxy balconies that look like an afterthought, the slightly more ornamented brick and concrete constructions of the post-Soviet era. From the outside, they’re all pretty scary looking. Our building, which is brand-new, looks less like an urban ghetto than the older buildings nearby, but the closer one gets, the less pronounced are the differences. Graffiti, some of it in mangled English (“PUNKS NOD DET!”), marks even the newest constructions here, and the stairways and hallways that lead to individual apartment doors are universally dirty, with bent metal rails and pitted walls. Everything has an unfinished look about it, as though the construction workers who built the place might return at any moment to resume working.
Apartment doors are a strange affair, consisting of a padded outer door (sometimes replaced by the tenant with an ornate wooden affair that has to be seen to be believed) concealing a sturdy metal security door inside. Basically, anything that doesn’t belong to an individual is in a state of neglect and/or disrepair, but the ghetto stops at the threshold of each apartment. The interior of every Russian apartment that I’ve seen so far has been neat, clean, elegant, and well maintained – better living space, on the whole, than most middle-class urban American apartment dwellers enjoy. Interior doors are of the beautifully decorated solid-core type that costs a lot of money in the States, and the wallpaper, which is often richly textured, has a peculiar thickness to it that hasn’t been seen in the U.S. since the ‘20s or ‘30s. The sprayed-on cottage cheese ceilings that are so common in America are wholly absent, and all the walls are thick enough to hide a body in, if only they were hollow, which they are not. Chandeliers are common, and huge Persian rugs are popular both as covering for the gorgeous wooden floors that abound here, and as wall hangings. As for furniture, styles and quality vary greatly. Beautiful, solidly built antiques mix freely with cheap, crappy Soviet stuff and affordable, utilitarian modern pieces purchased from the local stores. In newer places like ours, a great deal of IKEA can be found.
There are two really major differences between Russian living space and American living space: the first occurs only in the older buildings, where plumbing and electrical connections are right out in the open, instead of being hidden by the walls. Every pipe, wire and fixture is just right out there in front of God and everybody, and you can visually trace the connection from every electrical outlet all the way to the pole outside. Some older Russian bathrooms (the bathroom is the room where you take a bath, not the room containing the toilet) are madcap Dr. Seuss mazes of pipes, traps, and u-joints, with electrical wiring running across the walls and ceiling like ivy on a trellis. Oddly, there are no hot water heaters in most places, as water is heated centrally for each town… but we have an uncle down south whose bathroom contains a water heater that actually heats the water on demand (it nearly took my eyebrows off the first time I turned the hot water on – there’s no tank, just a frighteningly large array of gas jets that turn on automatically when you open the hot water tap). His toilet, too, is a marvel to behold. Built in the time of Stalin, it’s what I’ve always thought of as a “water closet”: the toilet’s tank is way the hell up there, right under the ceiling, with a long pipe running straight down into the top of the throne. When you want to flush, you pull a wooden handle hanging from a long chain, and gravity does the rest.
The second big difference between American and Russian housing is in the construction of the buildings themselves. Like Americans, Russians have a long history as technological pioneers, and we can thank them for many innovations, and admire them for many great accomplishments, including a number of firsts in space exploration. How curious it seems, then, that they have never made the scientific breakthroughs necessary to develop the plumb bob or the t-square. As God is my witness, I swear that if any house or apartment building in this entire country contains even a single right angle, it was put there by accident, and probably in a place where nobody wanted one. Everything is solid, but nothing is square, and nothing is level. Our hallway, for instance, leans drunkenly to one side by several degrees, an irregularity I first noticed while attaching some IKEA cabinets to the wall. The tops of the cabinets are flush, but the bottoms stand a good two inches away from the wall, which is so far from square with the floor that one wonders how on Earth they managed to frame the doorways properly.
I've got lots more to write about, but there's a party starting downstairs, and they're waiting for me. More soon!
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