Prague Twin

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Back from Moscow

I just got back from Moscow where foolishly I had expected to have at least some internet access. I did not, nor did I have any English language news or information of any kind, or a telephone, for four whole days. Suffice to say, I'm a little out of sorts and I feel it will take some time to get back on my feet. More from Moscow later, but here is an entry I wrote the first night in my hotel room, completely unedited.

Today was my first day spent in Moscow ever. The experience is enhanced by the fact that I never thought I would be able to come here. Much like my wife who says she never thought growing up that she would meet an American, much less go to America, my experience of being here in Moscow, on business no less, shatters the juvenile construct which defined my formative years. Russia has always been in my mind the forbidden land; it has always been the place that exists only in textbooks and in Reagan speeches. Never in my wildest dreams growing up did I think that I would have to come here on business, or for any other reason.

The Russian experience started before we even landed in Moscow. The first thing that was different was that before they even called for boarding, people lined up at the gate. This may have been an anomaly started by the first people who stood in line before the official boarding call. This in turn started a chain-reaction, which may or may not have been an exclusive feature of Russian travel. But I couldn’t help to wonder if 72 years of communism had some part in the willingness, rather desire to get in line as soon as possible. When the boarding call finally came, there were already at least 100 people in line to get on the plane.

There was some drama regarding carry-on baggage. Several people had to check their carry-on baggage, and there were some heated discussions regarding same. I began to worry that my carry-on baggage would be too much and I would end up being one of the arguing masses. In fact, I was unmolested, however, I couldn’t help but to wonder what was different about this flight that would justify such a different procedure. You see, I have traveled on Czech Airlines (the carrier for this flight) to Paris, to London, to Dublin, and to Amsterdam. Never before have I seen anyone be pressured about their handbag. This was different. Same airline, same check-in people, same airport, and yet we were being treated completely differently because of where we were going.

I boarded the plane without incident, and had an isle seat just behind first class: 4D. No one was in 4E to my great surprise. Most of the plane was full, but somehow I managed to get a free seat next to me. What was strange was that they kept repeating that this was a non-smoking flight throughout the flight. Usually you get the perfunctory warning and they leave it be, but on this flight they kept repeating it in three languages (English, Czech, and Russian) throughout the flight. My free seat deal ended towards the end of the flight as someone who needed medical attention was allocated my seat. She never actually sat there, but I had to move all the same. The broadcasted request that anyone who may be a doctor come to the front of the plane was also a first for me.

Finally we landed in Moscow and I headed for passport control. The lines were enormous. The only place I saw such big lines was in the United States, but in the United States everything was very well organized and moved quickly. In Moscow it was a good hour of standing before I got through. I felt especially sorry for the black guy in the next line. Knowing how openly racist they are here, I had picked him out and thought to myself, “I sure am glad I am not that guy right now.” Sure enough, when he got to the counter, there was a delay. He probably stood there for a good 15 minutes only to be told to wait aside while further information was gathered. This guy was obviously an American coming in from on the New York flight. He looked perfectly respectable, but I’m sure it was his skin color that held him back. I don’t actually know if he ever got through. I didn’t see him at baggage claim.

Once I finally got through, I found my bag stashed off in a corner. I went through customs and found my ride. On my way out I was approached by several taxi drivers, the last of which asked me if I wanted a taxi “a little later.” I told him I had someone waiting for me and he said, “are you sure?” I laughed and carried on looking for my ride which I managed to find. The drive through the center was incredible. Lanes don’t mean much apparently. I was an full hour of urban rally driving before we reached the hotel. At the hotel, I was asked to fill out a registration form. I had some idea what when where from filling out my landing card with the help of a friendly Czech man I met in line. Once the lady realized that I was filling out the registration card with Latin letters, she scoffed at me and crumpled up the form. Nonetheless I was granted a room.

Had I never lived in the Czech Republic the room might have been a bit shocking. I am sharing a bathroom. There are towels on the bed with a small bar of soap on top. The soap is not rapped in the traditional hotel paper. In fact, I can not determine if it is new or used. As bad as this room is, I’ve had worse.

My host came by to pick me up about 8 PM tonight. No less than 4 hookers approached us before we could get clear of the place. My host lied and told them that he didn’t in fact have a light. We went to the grocery store and bought food and vodka. We went back to his apartment, which is near the hotel, and he cooked a fantastic meal. Of course, we started the meal with the Russian style of drinking. You do a shot right at the beginning and eat right on top of it. By the time we finished the meal, the three of us had drank the better part of a liter of vodka. It is the best way to drink. You drink a lot, but you never feel completely drunk. It is a controlled drunk that lasts. Hell, I’m writing this for better or worse, and if I had drank that much vodka in any other way, I’m sure I would be so trashed that I couldn’t write anything.

The funniest thing was that once we drank a few shots, we were able to talk. My host doesn’t speak English, but I speak Czech, which is in the same Slavic family of languages. However, Czech and Russian are not so similar as to be interchangeable like Slovak and Czech, for example. The vodka got the communication flowing. Somehow we were able to understand each other. I learned a lot of Russian very quickly. It was quite a time.

When a person says the Russians know how to drink, it means something more that tolerance and bravado. They actually have a system that works. I’ve experienced this system in Prague with a Russian friend of mine, but tonight I experienced the real thing. Wow, I think the vodka is finally starting to catch up with me. Time for sleep.

10 Comments:

  • Interesting travelogue. I've been to East Germany and Yugoslavia (back when those countries existed) but not Russia. I read the book "The Russians" in the early '70s and a few more recent articles, during their capitalism phase and higher crime rates, etc.

    Your experience sounds similar to the stories I've read. Russia sounds like a neat place to visit, even with all the frustrations. I've traveled in Asia a lot (not recently) so I know all about mind-boggling bureaucracies and long waiting lines.

    By Blogger Tom Harper, at 2:55 AM  

  • I hope your going to write more on this visit..tell me you are.As someone who has never been to Europe, I can relate experiences to your wonderful expressive post that I have had all over the lower 48 states.

    Thanks,I enjoyed the hell out of this.

    By Blogger dusty, at 11:02 AM  

  • Russia is definately interesting. I wish I had more time to see things. I've done quite a bit of traveling, but Moscow is truly a singular place.

    Thanks both for your kind words. Dusty, I'll be sure to write more about my experience there. It gets worse. ;)

    By Blogger Praguetwin, at 1:32 PM  

  • When we were driven from Pulkova (St. Petersburg's airport) to the city center, I had the most disconcerting sensation of passing from barbarism to civilization.

    Near Pulkova, at the city's edge, there are enormous factories abandoned and rusting, looking so old that they might have been bombed out in WW2 for all I know. Then as you drive in (with the multi-lane slalom that you describe) you encounter the miles and miles of grey slab Soviet apartment blocks. This gives way to enormous office buildings still adorned with the Hammer and Sickle, statues of Lenin, and monuments on a scale that is not equalled in the West. Finally, after about an hour of driving, you get into central St. Petersburg, near the Neva, where the Soviet architecture gives way to the 18th and 19th century classical and rococco--you might as well be in Versailles, only on an enormous scale.

    As bizarre and enlightening travel experience as I've had.

    By Blogger Kvatch, at 5:58 PM  

  • Great post PT. I've always been an arm chair Russophile. But without the courage to actually experience the reality.

    By Blogger Cartledge, at 9:23 PM  

  • Off topic

    Wish those Czechs good luck today. If we don't win the group, I hope y'all do.

    Mike

    By Blogger mikevotes, at 2:08 PM  

  • It's amazing to think the Russians actually dominated a large part of the world at one point, given what seems to be their overall--how can I put it? decrepitude...

    By Blogger Elizabeth, at 9:13 PM  

  • Great post. I, alas, will never get to Moscow or St. Petersburg or take the tour of the great battles of the Great Patriotic War. Green with jealousy, even though I think Russia's a pit from the Russian movies I've been watching lately.

    By Blogger Roger Fraley, at 1:25 AM  

  • Yo! PT. Long time no hear--it is Sunday, June 25 today. I hope you have a good excuse like you've been attending the World Cup.

    Tony

    By Anonymous Tony Sokolow, at 7:32 PM  

  • Thanks everyone for your comments and kind words. I do indeed have a good excuse: 2 weeks in Portugal. Again, I foolishly expected to have internet access.

    Stay tuned!

    By Blogger Praguetwin, at 5:31 PM  

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