If you ever had any doubt that Russians are in their own class of crazy, especially in the wintertime, this is all the proof you need. Clicking it will be the best way you’ve spent 4 minutes and 52 seconds in a long time.
I thought we’d never crack the Russians. On our first day, everything was a struggle. People had very little interest in helping us. I had a hunch that many of them spoke English but just didn’t feel like talking. I don’t blame them. It was too early and too cold to add another inconvenience to their list of things pissing them off as they walked down the street.
When it comes to navigating street signs, Russian may as well be Chinese. The Cyrillic alphabet was a lot harder to read than I thought. Not like that should have been a surprise; I guess I’d never looked at Russian that closely. That’s the thing about Russia, you don’t pay much attention to it until you need to– like when they launch a monkey into space, win the Winter Olympics in a subtropical beach town, or their rebels shoot down an international airplane. Then all of a sudden the State Department’s like “crap, who here speaks Russian? Does anyone have the post-USSR phone number? We need Putin on the line stat.”
Speaking of Putin, we had a run-in with him later in the day.
We started off with breakfast at our hotel. A more accurate way of putting it: eating croissants in a shady windowless hotel basement had been a nightclub three hours prior. The hotel made no effort to hide this from its customers. The walls were painted with jungle scenes and Siberian tigers staring down at you, there was taxidermy on the walls, and playlist was still on, though at a slightly lower volume. We were treated to a soothing Pitbull remix version of Johnny La Gente Esta Muy Loca as we tried to plan our day over coffee. My biggest regret of the trip was not dragging Kevin, Morgan and Tim down there for a drink or two before we turned in for the night. Frequent Failer is lamenting all that could have been.
Needless to say, we started off our morning on the right note, which only partially explains our decision to walk to Red Square without knowing where the Red Square was. “We’ll figure it out,” my dad said, “It’s the biggest destination in all of Moscow, surely there will be signs for the Kremlin and Saint Basel’s Cathedral as soon as we get off the metro stop.”
There was not. Or maybe it was in Russian. Sure, we eventually made it to Red Square, but not until after we had walked up and down the same five streets three different times. Stopping a Muscovite and uttering “Red Square?” drew nothing but cold shoulders and confused looks. I couldn’t decide who was more confused, us or the Russians wondering what the hell a family of six was doing walking around in November in Moscow for fun without a clue where they were going. They thought they were doing us a favor by not telling us how to get there.
As you can see, we made it there, and had a great time checking out St. Basel’s cathedral:
After a few more pictures, we unsuccessfully tried to get into the Kremlin to see Vladimir Lenin’s embalmed body inside the mausoleum, but it was closed for renovation. Yet the Kremlin was up and running. Or should I say, driving, as we would soon find out.
But first, it was time to hit up some art exhibits, specifically the Pushkin Museum, because everyone, even the Russians, needs their daily dose Cézannes, Monets and Renoirs to add some savoir vivre to their lives.
The fact that we were visiting a museum full of impressionist art from places we’d already been (read: Paris) was far from the biggest issue we had with the Pushkin. Kevin, Morgan, Tim and I know that art museums come with the territory. It’s always been that way, and frankly, the four of us were glad to be going indoors after freezing our butts off in Red Square.
Not so fast. There was a line to get into the museum that stretched all the way around the corner. We couldn’t believe it, this many people were willing to sit outside in 30 degree weather for 45 minutes just to see some art that will still be there tomorrow.
My dad pointed out that the experience of queuing in a line outside in the frigid Moscow air is a key Russian cultural experience that is not to be missed. He reminded us that under communism, lines were a part of everyday life as starving people under lined up for their ration of bread (and later, McDonald’s). In fact, queuing was far more Russian than the Western European art museum we were waiting to enter. I am so lucky.
The struggles did not end when we finally made it inside the museum. Spoiler alert: we couldn’t find the exhibit of Cézanne, Monet and Renoir. I’m pretty sure it was a permanent exhibit, so I realize this seems near-impossible, given that we walked around for more than an hour looking for it. There was a Le Corbusier exhibit (not impressionist art, but, hey also French!) that I walked around with Morgan a bit while my dad grew visibly angry that we could not find his dear friends Paul, Claude and Auguste.
If that was the worst thing that happened to us that day, we would have been fine. It wasn’t. After the failed visit to the Pushkin, we journeyed back into the cold, unsure of where to go next. We had tickets to the see the Bolshoi ballet later that evening, and decided to journey to the area where the performance hall was and ultimately find something to eat before the show.
We headed out to an eerily quiet main road. My dad, still trying to navigate, directed us to cross the street so that we could walk along the Moskva river. For whatever reason, there were no cars coming from this major road in central Moscow that was five lanes across. We started to take our time jaywalking across, until we heard sirens. A lot of sirens. There were cars suddenly charging in our direction and going very fast.
I thought we were about to arrested by the KGB for jaywalking. Russia will throw you in jail for anything. I started running, and once I was about four lanes across, I looked behind me to see if everyone else made it across. Slightly behind were Tim and my mom, muttering under her breath something about how stupid she was for following my dad into the road (not the first time she’s said that).
Now, my dad rarely misses a good camera opportunity, and as the great Russian author Maria Sharapova said, “make every shot, a power shot.” Or maybe that was Stalin she was quoting. Regardless, truer words have not been spoken, and my dad embraced it with this photograph:
“Guys,” he said, trying to catch his breath, “do you realize what you just witnessed?”
“A Russian car chase?” Tim said.
“No,” my dad could barely contain his enthusiasm, “That was Putin and his entire motorcade! And we almost got run over by them! How awesome!”
That explained why the road was so empty; it had been shut down for the Vlad himself to race down. Despite the rest of the the trip turning out as it did, the trip would be considered a success. It took a turn for the worse just a few hours later.