Wednesday, July 02, 2008

From Russia With Love

So when I last posted, I was in Kenya getting licked by a giraffe. I am currently sitting on my friend's couch in Moscow. In getting from A to B, I had high tea in true Nairobi colonial style with my buddy Johnny Norseman, went on a mini-safari with same, presented findings to Ministers, got project plans approved, spent every waking hour in the World Bank office, been the victim of identity theft, bought new sneakers, flown back and forth across the Atlantic on consecutive days, and am now in Russia on vacation until the end of the month.

And I am going to be honest, vacation feels pretty damned good. Moscow is nothing like I expected it to be. It is as European as Paris, and as expensive as New York. Driving a Bentley is hip here. I am not sure I had ever even seen a Bentley.

I have been on the no-rush tourist schedule here because I am going to try to relax a bit. This means sleeping late, lingering over my lunchtime bowl of borscht and a good book, eating dinner late at outdoor cafes and drinking it the sun goes down (which, conveniently, pretty much never happens this far north in mid-summer.) I have managed to see a couple of the major sites though. My first day was the Tretyakov gallery, which had all the highlights of the Russian painters throughout the ages. Next day it was the Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery. The convent was nice, all gold dome and tsarist intrigue, but I like the cemetery better. Famous poets, authors, performers, writers, Boris Yeltsin, all buried here. The Yelstin memorial looks somewhat worryingly like a overweight drunk guy sleeping under a Russian flag, but it might just be the New Russia sense of humor that I don't always get.

The following day I felt like I was hitting my tourist stride and made my way down to Red Square. The square itself is massive (a somewhat expected characteristic in a place formerly used to parade tanks). It is bordered on one side by St. Basil's Cathedral (the terribly iconic and photogenic onion domed church), one side by the Kremlin (which looks like a very nice 1970's office building, with a really nice palace and old churches out back), and, in true New Russia style, on two sides by shopping malls. One, GUM, is famous for being the place where us little capitalist children would be sent for punishment in the 80's if we didn't stop whining in Toys R Us. Cold, long lines, nothing on the shelves, waiting hours, with nothing but moldy potato in our bellies, to maybe have the chance of spending a month's salary to buy a yo-yo or pair of boots. It is somewhat different these days. Everything still cost more than I make in a month, but that's because they are selected for the Bentley driving set. The historic building (from the early 1900's) has been restored, with ornate iron walkways, fountains, and a glass roof. (If there is a heaven and my sister Katie gets to go, this is pretty much what it would look like.) Then I filled in the afternoon with a couple of the Lesser Known Onion Domed Churches around St. Basil's, and with a trip to the Kremlin armoury (home of the famous Faberge Eggs). Then I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to sort out my "dokuments" (which I feel will be a continuing theme in my life here...)

The next day started off with a return to Red Square to visit the Lenin Mausoleum. My two minute walked by the preserved Soviet hero allowed me, along with visiting Mao in 2001 and Ho Chi Mihn in 2004, to pick up the Embalmed Communist Leader Hat Trick. Life goal #923874, CHECK!

Then I poked around the Kremlin grounds for a few hours, with their churches and office buildings and guards. The visit was punctuated by Mercedes with blacked out windows screaming past a full speed, lest we forget that this is the center of a working government. (Side note: One thing I have learned since being here in Moscow is that if you, as a pedestrian, gets hit by a car, it's your fault. No matter if it is in the road, on the sidewalk or in your front hall. Your shattered femur means nothing against a bumper scratch on a Bentley.) I spent the rest of the day walking around town, working on my "dokuments" and trying to eat. I am having a bit of a rough go at eating here. I speak no Russian and can only very rudimentarily make out the Cyrillic alphabet. I have resorted to eating mostly in cafeteria-style places, where I can at least point to edible looking items. And I have been eating a lot of beets. I really like beets.

That is pretty much it for now. I took a ride on a boat down the Moscow river today to pick up any last lingering onion domed churches that I may have overlooked, and am headed out to St. Petersburg on the 2 am train tonight. There are four of us headed up to celebrate the 4th of July weekend. I am excited. I am never in the United States for the 4th (twice in the last 10 years), so there is usually no one to celebrate with. Last year I spend the day in rural Tanzania declaring my independence from the British kid at the office.

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