Thursday, May 31, 2007

Moscow Journal #09 Getting back to Moscow

Well, I'm back in Moscow (and not quite as tired as I look in this picture). Before I start with the current round of exploits, I have to start with the tale of getting here. As you might recall from a previous entry, before you can apply for a business visa from the Russian Embassy or Consulate, you might first obtain a Letter of Invitation (LOI) from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow. The American Express office in Moscow handles the paper work for us, and I duly filed my paperwork with them (as I did back in January).

Not quite sure why, but for some reason, it takes longer to process a multiple entry visa than it does for a single entry visa (even though the only difference on my part is which box I checked on the application form): the advertised duration is 15 to 20 working days. Much to my surprise, on the lower end of the scale, I got a message from Amex informing me the LOI was in their office - now I just needed to arrange for pick-up.

But I'm thousands of miles and eight time zones away! Since Amex overnighted the LOI to me back in January (and that is a bit of a misnomer as it actually takes 3 days for the package to arrive), I asked them to repeat the process. However, true to form, there was a recent change in some rule or regulation, and Amex can no longer ship LOIs.

I called the local shipping department at work, and they informed me I should contact UPS. However, UPS in the States told me they can't arrange for an international pick-up and I need to call the Moscow office. Rang up UPS in Russia, and after putting me on hold, they hung up on me.

Decided to call the IBM office in Moscow (figuring they had a vested interest in my arrival in Moscow) to see if they could help. Unfortunately, IBM Shipping would not respond to any of my instant messages or notes, so I have to drag the secretary for lab director of software developers into the fray. After a few more exchanges with the secretary as the intermediary, Shipping finally got UPS to pick-up my LOI, and this was on March 21st.

A few days went by, and still nothing arrived at my house. On the 23rd, I asked the secretary for the tracking number (because Shipping would not communicate directly with me), and eventually I got a number. However, when I tried to locate the package, the UPS web-page stated the number was not valid. Due to the time difference, I had to wait until Monday, the 26th before I could contact Moscow again. The secretary informed me that after they gave me the original tracking number, they realized it was the wrong one and then she gave me the correct one. And it was still not valid (according to

Now I was beginning to get a bit anxious as my intended departure date was Monday, April 9th, and I still needed a couple of days for the consulate to process my application. I contacted the secretary again, and she got in touch with Shipping and they insisted UPS picked up the package. The secretary was getting frustrated (but not as frustrated as I was), and asked what more could be done.

"Well, if Shipping believes this number is valid, then ask them to track the package!"

The next day, the package finally showed up in the UPS web site (with a pick up date of 3/26). Finally, some progress.

Alas, the joy was not to last long. The following day, I got a note from the secretary informing me there was a problem with the package; for some reason, Russian Customs was holding it at the border. That seemed odd, but there didn't seem to be anything to do about that.

A couple of more days went by, and the status on the web-page changed; now the package was being held for non-payment. This completely perplexed me. Turns out, IBM and/or Amex was in the custom of sending LOIs to their destinations COD, and some recipients have not paid their bills. UPS decided to hold my package hostage until IBM (or Amex, I am still not clear on this point) paid an outstanding bill of over $2,000.

I contacted a few more more senior people in IBM Moscow, and the best advice I got was to start the whole process all over again, and this time, they would either send the LOI with a different carrier or they would ask someone heading over to the States to put it in the US Mail to me once they got to America. Back in January, I asked Amex if I could apply for a multiple-entry visa at the same time I had an application in the works for a single-entry visa, and the answer was an emphatic, "No!" So I doubted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would let me file for another LOI when the first one was never completely process.

While all this was happening, a situation arose at one of a customer installation (I'll omit the name, but they are located in Arkansas - that should be enough of a clue to figure out their identity). I was really hoping to make it through my career at IBM without visiting north west Arkansas, but given my LOI was still in UPS's possession in Moscow, I had to respond to this request for an on-site visit.

(As a side note, the trip to Bentonville really wasn't that bad. Then again, it wasn't the typical engagement either. However, that is a different story).

Just before I left for Arkansas on April 9th, I just happened to instant message with a co-worker in Moscow. He asked when I was scheduled to return to Russia, and I explained how UPS was holding my LOI as a hostage. Not sure how he did it, but they next day, he asked me, "If I pay UPS the equivalent of $50, they will deliver your letter. Is that OK?"

"Of course!" was my immediate response. Oleg paid the money, and while I was in Arkansas, my LOI finally arrived at the house. I assumed Oleg must have relatives or a close friend at UPS, but that's not the case. According to him, he went to the UPS office (which is not far from his house) and explained to the agent that IBM was not going to pay the $2000 bill just because this one letter was held hostage. Somehow he convinced the clerk that it was more practical to pursue the issue of non-payment with IBM and allow him to pay for this parcel. Still amazed that I ever got this LOI.

Anyway, back from Bentonville and armed with my LOI (and the rest of the application materials), I applied for the visa. I just had to change the dates of the trip from 4/9 through 4/26 to May 14th through June 1st.

While waiting for my passport to come back, I contacted American Express (here in the US) to change the flights. As it turns out, the original flights I booked for the April 9th departure was actually two separate tickets. For some reason, it was cheaper to book the NYC to London leg (on American Airlines) as one segment and the London to Moscow (on British Airlines) portion as another segment. What I didn't realize was that when I had to cancel/postpone that trip, American Airlines gave me a credit, however, the British Airlines' ticket was non-refundable, non-changeable, non-anything; BA simply kept my (OK, IBM's) money!

Now I had two reasons for despising Heathrowe - not only do they only allow one piece of carry-on luggage, they don't refund tickets!

Since I had to use American for part of the way (to use my credit with them) and I didn't want to go through London, I opted for FinnAir and Helsinki. The big shock came when the travel agent priced the new ticket. The relatively short hop from Helsinki to Moscow costs almost as much as the big leap across the Atlantic from JFK to Finland! Amazing. Also, for some reason, the first leg was booked as an e-ticket, but the Helsinki to Moscow leg was a paper ticket.

Eventually, the day of my departure arrived and it was time to schlep out to the airport. The night before, I stayed in NYC, so I opted to take the subway out to Jamaica and then the AirTrain to the terminal. I hopped onto the subway with plenty of time to spare, so even when we get stalled for a few minutes in Queens, I didn't panic.

Rolled my new luggage (thanks again, siblings!) through the terminal and over to the check-in counter. A bit of a line, but I had a book and I was just chllin'. To the front of the line, I produced my passport and paper ticket for Helsinki to Moscow, and the agent generated my boarding pass and handed back my documents. And I still had almost 2.5 hours until boarding.

Wandered around the terminal for a bit, got a bite to eat, wandered around a bit more and then finally went through security (with over 90 minutes still to kill). The Finns should really complain about their allotted space in JFK - what a grungy little section of the airport. First of all, it is isolated from the rest of the gates, and the only services available on the other side of security is a little newspaper stand and a poorly stocked coffee shop. Finally found an outlet and decided to power up the ThinkPad for a bit. (I should have started writing up this note then, but, true to form, I am doing this the day before I return!)

About 45 minutes before departure and just 15 minutes before boarding, I pulled out my documents and took a look through them. "Humm," I moaned to myself, "this is a bit odd. I only have 1 boarding pass. With only a 40 minute layover in Helsinki, I don't think I'll be able to get the boarding pass for the next leg while in transit."

Decided to pop over to the counter and I explained my situation to the agent. She asked for the claim ticket for my bag, and that's when I noticed my luggage was only checked as far as Helsinki! So much for being a "world traveler" - what a rookie mistake! You always check your boarding passes when you the agent checks you in. Oy.

The agent made a few calls and put an alert on my back. However, the way FinnAir can handle a 40 minute layover in Helsinki is they put the bags for Finland in one set of containers and the bags for Moscow (and the other destinations) in other containers. When the plane lands, all they have to do is move the large container from one plane to another. She said she would try to get my bag moved from one container to the other, but given I checked in so early, my bag was already loaded on the plane. So much for arriving early!

Sure enough, when we touched down in Moscow just after noon, the other bags went round and round the carousel, but my bag never showed up. Being the optimist, I waited about 30 minutes before walking over to the Lost Baggage area to file my claim. They already knew about my bag and informed me it would be on the Aeroflot due in at 10pm. I left the address of my hotel, and they said a courier would deliver it.

Humm - maybe it wasn't such a bad thing after all?

When I checked in at the hotel, I told the receptionist I expected my luggage to arrive sometime after 10pm, but I didn't expect to still be awake. And sure enough, the next morning, the red light on the phone was blinking and my bag was waiting for me downstairs.

OK - I think this is enough for the one.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Moscow Journal #08 02/24/2007 - 03/03/2007

Begining of the eighth journal entry.

I don't know why, but somehow once I get home, I have a tough time finishing up these journals. The only reason you are getting this note (aren't you lucky) is that I am back in Moscow for another 16 days or so. But you 'll have to wait a while before you get to hear about any recent exploits - first you have to tolerate my recollections from the February trip.

When we last left off, it was Saturday, February24th, and Alexey and his girlfriend offered to drive me out to Sergiev Posad (Сергиев Посад), which is a small town about 60K (37.2 miles) north east of Moscow. The main "attraction" there is Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius, one of Russia's most important religious and historical landmarks. Of course, I needed a little refresher on the life of the Saint and the monastery, and luckily the OCA (Orthodox Church in America) came to the rescue.

After a fairly quick car ride, we arrived at our destination. They didn't offer any audio guides, but they did have an even better option - a live guide, and we even had a choice of languages: either Russian or English. I wanted to ensure Alexey and Natasha got something out of the experience, so I offered to get one in Russian. However, Alexey felt Natasha's English was up to listening to the tour in my native tongue, so I made arrangements for a English speaking guide.

For about $30 (for all three of us), we got a semanarian student for a little over an hour. He started off in English, but once he discovered I spoke or more accurately, listened (my passive vocabulary is much stronger than my active) to Russian, I noticed he reverted more and more to Russian. Every once in a while, I had to remind him he was now speaking Russian, and I didn't quite understand what he just said.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed the tour, especially since we gained access to Assumption Cathedral, which was closed to the general public. While visiting that church, our guide explained the layout of church and he asked me what we call the room outside the nave in English. At first, the only word I could come up with was "vestibule," but I knew there was a more exact term. Rather embarrassed I couldn't recall this word (maybe my active vocabulary in English isn't very extensive, too), I was relieved when "narthex" finally popped into my head.

Our tour ended, and our guide left the three of us to continue exploring the grounds on our own. We made our way into Trinity Catherdal, where St. Sergius is entombed. For Alexey and Natasha, the visit was about looking at the icons and soaking in the history; however, they didn't feel any need or desire to wait on line to venerate the tomb of St. Sergius. They took off and continued to tour the grounds while I inched my way along to the final resting place of St. Sergius.

Once back outside, I figured this would be a good place to look for some wooden crosses. (Before I left for Moscow, my priest back home showed me some crosses he picked up on a recent visit to Ukraine and asked me if I could find some more). The three of us popped into one of the gift shops and asked the attendant at the first counter if they had any wooden crosses.

In true Soviet (or is it Russian) style, the one word reply, "No."

Alexey started to walk away, and I had to pull him back and asked the woman, "Do you know where there might be any?"

That produced a little more information and we located another room down the hall that had a stash of wooden crosses. But they looked so small. Turns out, there are a bunch of vendors outside the monastery, and we opted to pay them a visit.

Found a vendor with a single cross, and when I told her we needed three, she went trotting off to another guy all the way down the road for the additional two items. As a side note, once I got them back home, they looked so big compared to the ones my priest already had. Maybe the original ones I found inside the monastery were of the desired dimensions?

While we were on the tour, the guide mentioned there would be a service later that day around 5pm, and the choir was supposed to be most impressive. Unfortunately, we already finished our tour and souvenir purchases, and it was only 2pm. Didn't think I could talk Alexey and Natasha into hanging around for another 3 hours just so I could listen to Vespers. So we took a walk around the outside of the grounds and snapped a few more photos before heading back into town.

Here are some shots. I must admit, I am still a sucker for onion domes. These are from Assumption catherdral:

This is Assumption Cathedral with the Holy Trinity Icon

Bell Tower

This is the Metropolian's Residence. Notice the Roman Number XV at the bottom of the seal? Every year that is updated as it represents the current year of the Metropolitan's reign.

View from outside the monastery:

From what I remember, that night I decided just to relax and I read a book back in the hotel.
The next day, Sunday, I dubbed my Day of Mistakes. First, went to Liturgy with Tanya and Sophia, and I'm not sure what caused it, but we had some bonus services thrown in with the main event and it seemed to drag on forever. After church, I wanted to head out to Izmailovo Park, where a bunch of vendors sell souvenirs. According to the metro map in my Lonely Planet Guide, there are two stations with a similar name: Izmailovsky Park and Izmailovskaya, and I needed Izmailovsky Park. I hopped onto the metro, made the necessary change at Kurskaya and exited the metro at Izmailovskaya. Following the directions in the Lonely Planet, after about five minutes, I should have seen the entrance to the park. Well, I went for almost 10 and found nothing, and that's when I realized my mistake. Izmailovsky Park was renamed to Partisanskaya, so I got off at the wrong station!
I was in a bit of a rush as I planned on catching a volleyball match after shopping, so I hustled down the road to the proper metro station and found all the vendors. Not being much of a shopper, I only wondered around for a few minutes. I picked up a few things for the newphews and then toyed around with getting a new fur hat for myself. One vendor had a large selection, and he picked one out for me to try one. He wanted 1000 rubles (remember, my fourth line only paid 500 on Red Square), and when I looked at the label on the inside, it had a Soviet Stamp. This guy wanted me to pay double the price for a hat that was already over 15 years old. I decided to pass on that and then set off for the Sports Club Luch.
Normally I would have walked the entire way as it wasn't that far from where I was. However, I was pressed for time and opted for the electric bus through the park.
Now I was only a few blocks from my destination, and more importantly, I knew where my destination actually was. With great certainty, I navigated my way down the road, through the alley and over to the sports complex. Went up to the door, pulled on the handled and then noticed there was no one else in the facility except the woman behind the desk. Turns out, there was not match here today! I tried to find out if I was in the correct venue on the wrong day or in the wrong venue on the correct day, but she wasn't very helpful
Back to the hotel to drop off my purchases and then back out for a concert at the Catholic Church near Belorusskaya Station. Unfortunately, in my haste to leave, I left the address back in my room, and I didn't realize it until I was already at the target metro stop. I tried asking one of the policemen at the metro stop where the Catholic church was, and he pointed me to the church just across the street. I explained that was an Orthodox Church and repeated I was looking for a Roman Catholic Church. I took his shrugged shoulders as a sign of ignorance, so I contined to wonder the streets, hoping for some inspiration.
Luckily, on a near-by street corner, I noticed one of the many kiosks that sells tickets to various events. The lady inside was extremely helpful and even pulled out her map to point out my destination. I was afraid I was going to be a bit late, but I managed to arrive at the church before the concert even began.
Not sure what happened on Monday (nothing in my notes), and my next reminder is for Tuesday. After work, I decided to try the Indian Restaurant in the Sputnik Hotel. It moved floors since the Lonely Planet was written and now sits on the 16th floor with a wonderful view of town. The food was extremely tasty (not that I know much about Indian food) and they even had entertainment - a belly dancer. I didn't think that was quite Indian, and I was even more perplexed when she performed one number balancing a silver cane on her head. I had a feeling no one would believe me about this part of the story, but I didn't have my camera with me to snap confirmation of this feat.
On Wednesday, Tanya and I went to see Hamlet, and I must confess, we were a bit confused before the show: was it an opera or was it a play? I thought it was a play, but there was definitely someone listed on the ticket as the conductor. Turns out, there was just some music to accompany the production so it was definitely a play. Even though I am somewhat familiar with the plot, I printed off a synopsis of the action, and it was handy to use as a reference. This being Russia, even though they followed the plot (mostly), the ending was extremely odd. For some reason, this is where the music really kicked in and overpowered the actors, who literally just mouthed the words for the final death scene (this is a Shakespearan play afterall). Most bizarre.
After the show, I decided to walk back to my hotel, which wasn't that far away as it was one of my last nights in town. I cut through a park, and I guess my timing was just right (or was it wrong). I managed to get into the park just after all the gates were locked so by the time I got to the opposite end, I had no exit. I tried a few of the gates and there were all secure. Seems like I had two options: run back to where I entered (hoping that one was still open), or hop a fence. Given the former was not very likely, I actually opted for the latter and found a spot where the snow piled up against the side of a building and eased the climbing over the 6 foot fence. Of course, I waited until I couldn't see anyone on the other side as I didn't need any witnesses to this particular activity. Once back in the hotel, I decided to stop at the German restaurant within the hotel and celebrate my exploits with a pretzel.
Finally, we are up to Friday, March 2nd - my last full day in Moscow (for this trip). After work, the original plan was to head out for some drinks with a co-worker. However, something suddenly popped up, and he couldn't keep the appointment. So I did what I always do when given some free time in Moscow - to Red Square for one last look/gawk at St. Basil's and Lenin.
For dinner, I decide to try the Boris Godunov restaurant, which is just off of Red Square and serves Russian cuisine. And once again, I availed myself of the Lenten menu (I almost feel like cheating when I dine this way) and had a wonderful borscht and plemeni. To top it off, dinner also included entertainment, and instead of a belly-dancer with silver cane atop her head, it was a quartert of hefty Russian women dressed in traditional garb belting our, for the most part, traditional Russian songs. I mouthed the words to Kalinka and Moscow Nights, but they really confused me when they did an a capella version of Silent Night!
With a full belly and lightened heart, I decided to finally take my "subway" tour. I stopped at a few of the stations along the Circle Line and snapped a few pictures. Unfortunately, it wasn't until I was almost done with the loop when I tried taking some pictures without a flash (and those came out much better), but it was a bit late and I was too tired to start the circle over again. Here are some of the pictures:
Lenin in the stain glass at Novoslobodskaya Station

Fancy artwork at Prospekt Mira.

Chandeliers and artwork (with some people) at Propekt Mira.

Memorial to the 1917 Revolution at Krasnopresnenskaya.

Long view of the same station

Mosaic of Lenin at Kievskaya Station.

Long view of the same station.

Another one from Kievskaya (I liked the mosaics).

Ceiling at Belorusskaya
After my tour of the metro, I returned to the hotel around 10 pm. I was already packed and I just had to stash a few remaining items into my bag. (Since I had to return through London, from my recent experience, I knew I could only have 1 carry-on and I did NOT plan on repeating that mistake on the return trip). Now the dilemna - with a 5am departure, the taxi was scheduled to pick me at at 2am to ensure I could get to the airport at least 2 hours before departure time. With only 4 hours before the taxi, do I take a nap and risk oversleeping or do I stay up and pull an all-nighter?
Surprisingly enough, I opted on the latter and managed to keep myself alert and awake until 2am. Dragged the bags downstairs, checked out and only had to wait a few minutes for the driver.
At that time of morning, there wasn't much traffic on the road, and we pulled into Domededovo Airport before 3am. I didn't believe there would be anyone working there at that hour, but sure enough, the agent was at the counter to check me in.
I wondered around for a bit, sat for a bit, read for a bit, and eventually I got up and walked around the airport again. A duty-free store was open, so I bought a few boxes of Russian chocolates and carried them in a separate plastic bag. Found an open restaurant and decided to grab a bite to eat. I tried to order breakfast (which seemed like a logical choice to me given the time of day), and the waitress told me they didn't start serving breakfast until 4am. I took a look at my watch and noticed it was only ... 3:57 am. I pointed out I was only 3 minutes short, and she actually took my order (I half expected having to sit their in silence for the next 180 seconds).
Finally boarded the plane, and I slept on and off (more off than on) from Moscow to London. Basically by the time I arrived in the UK, I had pulled an all-nighter, and I was a bit cranky. I thought for sure the plastic bag would pose no problem, but sure enough, the security officals barked at me to collapse my possessions down to one bag or leave the terminal and check-in one of the offending bags. As I mentioned already, I was a bit cranky after getting very little sleep and the absurdity of this regulation really ticked me off. So, I placed the boxes of chocolate in my winter coat (thank goodness for large coats with many pockets) along with the plastic bag, placed the coat, my computer bag and shoes on the conveyor belt to the x-ray machine and the walked through the screener. As soon as my stuff passed through x-ray, I took the plastic bag out of my coat and placed the chocolate back into the bag and exclaimed, "Look at that - I have two bags! How was that any quicker?" Did I mention I was a bit cranky from lack of sleep?
Once I got back security, I had to make my way over to the connection desk, where I learned my original flight from London to Chicago was cancelled, but there were two other options. They automatically booked me on the one that kept me in London the longest (again - another ploy to get you to buy more stuf from their duty free stores, I am sure of it!)
However, I was hoping to use some frequent flier miles (along with a co-pay) to upgrade from coach to business, and I wanted the flight that gaveme the best chance of that. Turns out - same flight (and again, the duty-free store ploy, I'm sure!)
On the flight from London to Chicago, I could my second wind and that's where I finally caught up on most of the journal entries for this first trip. Once in Chicago, I posted a bunch of them and even wrote up another entry or two before boarding the final plane back home.
End of eighth journal entry.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Moscow Journal #07 2/19/2007 - 2/23/2007

Beginning of the seventh journal entry.

On Monday, I decided to change the morning ritual a little. Instead of snagging some cookies from the lobby on my way to the gym (and them eating them back up in my room for breakfast), I decided to get a little more "healthy" and replaced the cookies with a green apple from the check-in desk in the gym. Similarly, I changed the morning beverage from black tea with sugar and milk to green tea. However, there were no green tea bags conveniently left in my room every day; I just happened to notice them next to the cookies so I snagged a couple from the lobby.

The other item of interest this day was the arrival of my third line (the manager of my manager's manager) along with her manager (my fourth line manager). When I came to Moscow, I decided to arrive on Friday for two reasons: first of all, the flights were a little cheaper (but probably not cheap enough to offset the additional night in the hotel), but more importantly, I wanted a few days to deal with the jet-lag and adjust to the local time.
I guess these managers (we'll call them M3 and M4, just to make it easier) march to the beat of a different internal clock; they landed in Moscow around 10am, arrived at the office around 11am and had meetings the remainder of the afternoon. The next day, it was another day of meetings, and it all culminated with a 3am departure on Wednesday morning for the next leg in their tour: India. Not the way I would like to travel; I guess that's why I'm not in upper-level management, or more accurately, just one of many reasons I am not in upper level management.

Back to Monday and the visiting managers. Towards the end of the work day, the lab director in Moscow (an American on international assignment) made arrangements to transport the guests to their hotel (the Metropol, just off of Red Square) by taxi. I tried to convince M3 to take the metro (I met M3 years ago at one of the many IBM courses I took in the beginning of my career with the company, and she is one of the few executives I feel comfortable just chatting with as a friend), but she had luggage to contend with and felt guilty pawning it off on her manager. We agreed to meet in the lobby of the Metropol at 7:30pm and I would show them around Moscow.
Even using the metro line with the longer wait (which, again. was much closer to the 15 minute mark), I made better time to the hotel using public transportation than they did by taxi. I gave them a bit of a head start anyway to give them a chance to get settled into their rooms, so I had to wait a few minutes for them to pop down to the lobby.

In addition to M3 and M4, we had one more person in the group, and here I have no choice but to use an alias as I forgot his name! We'll call him O1 (his is responsible for managing our outsourcing, which I found out is a term I am no longer allowed to use; I also can not use off-shoring; the mandated terminology is either Global Test Team or Global Development Team). O1 got stuck on a conference call and was a little late joining us in the lobby, so we didn't begin our "tour" until after 7:45pm. Just to make matters more interesting, M4 had to get back to the hotel in time for a 9pm conference call, which left me with just about an hour to give them a tour of Moscow.

Luckily, the hotel sits almost right on top of Red Square, therefore we didn't waste any time in transit and in a few minutes, we entered the heart of Moscow.

"That's the Kremlin, which actually just means 'wall' in Russian, so many cities have a 'kremlin', it is just that Moscow has THE Kremlin."

"That's where Lenin, or at least a wax model of him, is housed."

"That's GUM" (note: I am NOT using IK5 here; GUM is an acronym for, in English, State Department Store; when I was in Moscow 25 years ago, it was a huge depressing building filled with little shops with either empty shelves or stocked with merchandise you would not want to buy; now it is chock full of designer stores, so once again it is not a building I felt compelled to enter).

"That's St. Basil's; after the cathedral was finished, Ivan IV was so impressed with its beauty, he asked the architect if he could make another; the architect, thinking he was about to get another commission, replied in the affirmative, which was the wrong answer as Ivan IV then blinded the architect to prevent him from producing a more spectacular building; they didn't call him Terrible for nothing."

While walking around Red Square (where M4 and O1 did not have any head gear and O1 didn't even have a winter coat, and by this time, the temperatures returned to "normal" and it was indeed colder in Moscow than it was back home in Poughkeepsie), a couple of hawkers approached us offering ushankas for sale. M3 wanted to buy one for her husband, and someone at work gave me a link to a store that sells the hats. I visited the site earlier in the day and discovered that rabbit fur hats go for between 450 and 700 roubles (about $17 to $27). M4, who doesn't speak any Russian, managed to negotiate the first hat for only 550 using just a series of hand signals and facial expressions. By the time we got to the other end of Red Square, O1 decided he needed a hat, and this time M4 got the vendor down to 500 roubles. Not too shabby (assuming the fur was indeed rabbit and not some less desirable product).

I had hoped to circumnavigate the Kremlin with them as I really enjoy the view from across the river. To that end, we started along the northern side of the Kremlin and made our way over to the Eternal Flame,

the monuments to Hero Cities of the Great Patriotic War

(what we refer to as WW II, and while all of these cities were in the Soviet Union about a third of them are outside of Russia) and then past the Architecture Item (not one quite knows what it is doing there).

We started across the bridge over the Moscow River, but at this point, I realized that we simply didn't have enough time to complete the circle as we weren't quite half-way done, yet, and it was already 8:30pm.

A quick re-trace of our steps, and I met the objective of getting M4 back to the hotel in time for the conference call (gotta make sure that finds its way into my work goals for 2007: get 4th-line manager back to the hotel in time for a conference call). O1 decided to remain at the hotel and thaw out, but M3 was game for a little more touring.

Didn't want to spend too much time acquiring food, so we opted for a quick bit to eat back in the food court of the near-by mall (where I had blini almost every night the week before). Unfortunately, the blini store was already closed (again, not sure if it was just a bit late, or if they were sold out from the Maselnitsa celebration). Fortified with a bit of nourishment, it was onto the subway.

The metro system really is quite spectacular, and many of the older stations are works of art. We went down Revolution Square (petted the nose of the dog)

and then over to Kievskaya Station to gawk at the mosaics.

By this time, I was beginning to fad a bit, and so it was back to the Metropol for M3 and to the Renaissance for me.

Tuesday - cold. This was the type of cold I expected from Moscow. On the walk from the hotel to the metro station, it was so cold (I think it was -20 C) my ears started to tingled. However, to pull the ears of my hat down to cover my own ears with the fluffy fur required me to take my gloves off, and I didn't want my hands to freeze. Years ago, when my brother and I were young enough to spend an entire winter's day outside sledding, as we walked back to the house, for some reason my ears were exposed to the elements and very cold and beet red. My brother then came up behind me and flicked my ear. As my hero Bugs Bunny says, "Agony!" I thought my ear shattered and crumbled to the sidewalk, just like in the cartoons; the stinging, burning sensation was so intense. I was extremely glad my brother was not walking beside me on the way to the metro that morning.

Wednesday - this was our last day at Krasnopresnenskaya Towers as the next day saw us at our new location on the south side of the city near metro station Kalyshskaya. True to my style of waiting to the last minute, Wednesday was the day I finally decided to time each leg of the commute to give you a feel for how long each portion took. I had this great plan of giving you most of the segments and asking you to perform the math to determine where the missing 4 minutes were. Unfortunately, once I exited the metro at Krasnopresnenskaya, all ground vehicles (cars, busses, electric busses - everything) were not moving and traffic was at a complete stand-still. Not sure what the problem was, I heard mention of an accident, or maybe it was congestion due to a major exhibition at a conference center a bit down the road. Anyway, it didn't seem like we were going to make any progress by bus, so it was back onto the metro, through Kievskaya (where there were still TONS OF PEOPLE!) and to the Mezhdynarodnaya metro station, which is within walking distance of work.

In case you were wondering, the answer to my little puzzle about the missing four minutes is: escalators. Not all the metro stations are so deep in the ground (particularly the newer ones, which don't even have moving stairs), but many of the older stations are so deep down it takes 2 minutes to get from the top down to the tracks. Then another two minutes to get from the tracks back to the surface on the other end for a total of 4 minutes a day just riding the escalators. I figure I spent at least two hours during my stay in Moscow simply riding the escalators.

Even though the green tea bags were available each morning at the complimentary coffee and tea bar set-up in the lobby, but the time I finished at the gym (and banya), the set-up was already dismantled. This left a slight feeling of guilt for swiping a tea bag on the way into the gym. After work that night, I decided to assuage my guilt by asking for green tea to be delivered to my room instead of black. The agent seemed quite surprised by such a request (I can't believe that a Japanese guest never made a similar request), and she went off to confer with her superior in the backroom. However shocked she looked, I was even more taken aback by the response: "No." I questioned her reply, and she stated they didn't keep any green tea in stock. I just simply shook my head, returned back to my room and continued my life of morning-tea-bag-snatching.

Back in the room, I was greeted by another surprise. A little placard with "Fresh Seasonal Fruits" on one side and "Compliments" on the other sat in front of a plate with ... meat filled little pastries. Huh. Here it was Ash Wednesday and Orthodox Lent already started, and they left meat filled pastries. A bit disappointed (as I really wanted the Fresh Seasonal Fruits!), I decided to leave a little note in Russian thanking them for the gift but also explaining that I prefer to refrain from consuming such products during Lent.

The next day, Thursday, was the first day in the new building, which was still going through some "growing" pains. The place was still under construction, and there was no cafeteria on-site (so everyone was in a bit of a tizzy as to where to go for lunch that day). But I promised not to bore you with work details, so we'll move on to the commute back to the hotel that night.
While walking from the metro to my room, I saw these two guys ahead of me asking a local for directions. The reply was a bit terse, and the questioner then targeted me as the next recipient of his query. "Do you know where the Renaissance Hotel is?" came the question in Russian with a heavy accent of some sort. I replied in Russian, "Yes, I myself am going there." We exchanged a few pleasantries, and I asked them where they were from. "India". "Ah, so you speak English?" "Yes!" and I think they were glad to chat away in English.

Turns out their destination was not quite the hotel, but rather, the cinema right next to my building. I was wondering what that dome was (and sure enough, the movie theater is called "Cinema Under the Dome"). Most foreign films in Moscow (and probably all of Russia) are dubbed into Russian, but this movie theater is one of the few that plays films in the native language. I've been walking past the door to his building for almost three weeks and I never noticed. (I know, I know, so what else is new?)

Back in the room, and the complimentary dish of "fresh seasonal fruit" along with my note was still on the desk. Slightly disappointed, I decided to return the dish to the front-desk. And again I confused the agent; she started to translate the note for me, and I interrupted her to inform her I knew the contents of the note as I wrote it. We finally cleared up the confusion, but even more disappointed, I return back to my room empty handed - I was really hoping to score some actual fresh seasonal fruit. Oh, well.

Friday was a national holiday, which 25 years ago was called "Red Army Day". However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union (and therefore the Red Army), the holiday was renamed, and it is now something along the lines of "Defenders of the Motherland Day". The cold weather convinced me to select an in-door activity, and I opted for the Tretyakov Gallery. This museum consists of 62 rooms of Russian art ranging from icons through the 19th century movement called Peredvizhniki. Armed with the Lonely Planet and the audio guide (again paying the extra 100 rubles to get the English version), I toured the collection for almost five hours. I knew I should have taken notes while I wandered through the rooms as I have such a short attention span for art, but now I can hardly remember the name of a single painting. However, I do recall coming across several famous works like the portrait of Dostoyevsky by Perov, and Kiprensky's portrait of Pushkin, and Boyarina Morozova by Surikov, and Repin's Ivan the Terrible and His Son (side note: another reason Ivan got the moniker "Terrible" - not only did he blind the architect who designed St. Basil's, but in a fit of rage, he also killed his eldest son) and thinking, "Wow - I've seen pictures of this before!" Towards the end of the day, I was getting a bit saturated and I'm not sure how much new material managed to filter into my consciousness.
One of the highlights of the collection is the famous icon by Rublyov called "Holy Trinity". According to the tour book, every visitor to the museum makes his way through the maze of rooms to find this icon, but someone must have forgotten to tell that to everyone in the gallery that day. By the time I got to room 60, there was hardly anyone else in that section of the museum. Once again, I got to enjoy almost complete solitude with the icon (except for the attendant in the room and the occasional visitor), and what initially struck me was simply the size of the icon.

Back onto the street, I lowered the ear flaps and set off towards, where else, Red Square, which wasn't that far away by foot.

Over the bridge, past St. Basil's, past GUM on the right and the Kremlin wall with Lenin on the left, and by the time I got to the other side of Red Square, I was a bit chilled. Just as I passed the Kazan Cathedral, I could hear the sounds of the evening service from the choir inside over the speakers to the outside. Seemed to be a sign I should attend Vespers, so inside I went. Got a little worried when I thought we just started a full blown Liturgy, but sure enough it was just the evening service and soon I was back out of the road.
Inspired my encounter with the two guys from India the night before, I set off down Tverskaya Street in search of Restaurant Tandoor. Unfortunately, restaurants come and restaurants go and it is tough for even the Lonely Planet to keep up with them, and unfortunately, Tandoor was no more. Instead, I had to settle for Planet Sushi (you knew at some point I was going to end up at a Japanese place, didn't you)

Wow - this went on a bit longer than I had expected. Seems enough for this entry, so I'll sign off here for now.

End of the seventh entry

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Moscow Journal #06 2/12/2007 - 2/18/2007

Beginning of the sixth journal entry.

For my next trip, I really need to keep on top of these journal entries. Right now, I'm composing this note on the flight from London back to Chicago, and as I look at my skeletal notes, I can barely remember what I did yesterday let alone almost three weeks ago. Then again, maybe that is just the side effect of pulling an all-nighter last night, but you'll hear more about that later (and at this rate, it will be much later!).

As many of you already know, telling time in the Orthodox church gets a little confusing. Some churches still use the Julian (or old-style) calendar for fixed dates, and that system for reckoning dates is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar (or new-style calendar). That's why "Russian" Christmas falls on January 7th; for the folks that use the old calendar, that is actually December 25th. However, just to confuse matters even more, certain feasts and holidays are based on fixed offsets from Easter, and almost all Orthodox churches (with the exception of the Finnish Church) use the same formula for determining the date on which to celebrate the Feast of Feasts, and this calculation usually produces a different date from the one used in the West.
Furthermore, even when we celebrate Easter on the same day as the West (as is the case this year), we don't enter Great Lent at the same time. For us, the Great Fast is the 40 days before Holy Week, including Sundays (and in my interpretation, Holy Week is just a "bonus" week of preparation for the Pasha), while for the West, Lent is the 40 days before Easter excluding Sundays. When the dates for Easter align, the West marks the entry into this period of the church's life with Ash Wednesday and we begin two days earlier on Monday.

However, in a somewhat similar manner to feasting before a fast as expressed in Carnival celebrations and Mardi Gras, the week before Great Lent is called Maselnitsa and is a time for consuming massive amounts of dairy products and blini (a Russian treat that is somewhere between a crepe and a pancake). This is not something we quite do back home though last year I tried to have crepes one night during Maselnitsa only to be told they won't heat up the crepe iron for just one person. Since I was in the land of blini, I decided to take full advantage of the blini options.

Even in the cafeteria, at the station called "Tastes of the World", blinis were the taste of day for the entire week. Traditionally, you place caviar (something I still have not acquired a taste for), sour cream, chives, fish, jam, honey or more recently chocolate, either separately or in any combination, though I'm not sure I would try a caviar, jam, honey chocolate combo. Or course, given my genetic predisposition for sweets, my blini that week were of the dessert variety.
To supplement the lunch-time blini, every night that week, instead of taking the bus to the metro and returning straight back to the hotel, I altered the route. From the office, I walked to the closest metro station, where the wait was sometimes up to 15 minutes (after 5 tries, you would think the law of averages would dictate that at least one night I should be able to arrive in the station and simply walk onto the waiting train, but I would swear that I had to wait at least 10 minutes each night), but the last stop on that line was Oxotny Ryad (Охотний Ряд) - very close to the tower of the Kremlin that provides access for the visitors of the Kremlin grounds. From there, it was a short walk to the mall, where the food court provided other dairy options for the main course (usually a slice of pizza) topped off with yet one more blin. Most nights, I went for the chocolate with banana, but one night I had to settle for wild berries since they were out of chocolate (comforting to know I am not the only person who enjoys these dessert blini). Even in the consumption of blini, I reverted to being a creature of habit.

Flying through the week again (since work is just work), and Wednesday of that week was St. Valentine's Day. In the morning, I went to the gym, as was my custom (snagging some butter cookies from the lobby before performing the daily ritual), and I was in the process of getting ready for work when there was a knock at the door. A bit surprised as I wasn't expecting anyone at 8:30, I opened the door to discover someone standing there with a little bottle of red wine along with a small plate of 6 chocolates. including a chocolate covered strawberry. I was even more surprised by appearance of these goodies as I didn't order anything from room service, and the delivery woman informed me they were compliments of the hotel. How nice (but in retrospect, for $250 a night before taxes, they could afford to throw little offerings like that to long-term guests every once in a while. Turns out they did; about once a week, I returned from the office to find some treat left for me in the room. But that is another story...)

I tried to be good by rationing the treats and to stretch them out over at least two days, but it didn't quite happen. The first three pieces fell victim to breakfast, and the survivors didn't make it past the evening when they became part of a second dessert (after the blin with chocolate and banana).

Earlier in the week, Tanya took a look at Afisha for options on Friday night, and she selected a performance at the Main (Big) Hall of the Conservatory. During the day, when I started to poke around to ascertain my best choice for metro station, one of my co-workers noticed my activities. She asked what I planned on seeing that night, and true to form, I had to confess ignorance. We both took a look at Afisha and when we came to the entry describing that night's concert, she just looked at me and said, "I hope you didn't already by tickets; maybe you can see something else?" Russians tend to be a bit blunt (Remember the comment about the chocolate? "What's the matter - don't you like Russian chocolate"? On similar lines, on my last day there, one of the guys asked me, "So, what don't you like about Moscow?" It took a great deal of self control to not say, "How much time do you have, buddy?"! Or another incident; on my way over to Moscow, I saw a book in Chicago that looked intriguing called The Romonov Prophecy; it is set in Moscow and I thought it would be a hoot to read it while I was in Moscow. That never happened as I worked on some other books first, and trying to lighten my load, I decided to leave the book with another one of the guys at work. He took one look at the cover and said, "Well, I am not sure how good this book will be; I have a feeling the author doesn't really know Moscow and it seems to me it just shows Moscow as a stereotype, like Russians are often portrayed in bad American movies." Honest and blunt)

Wow - that was a bit of a tangent. OK - back to the concert. R's concern (in Russian stories, when the author didn't want to name a given character or place, he would simply use a single letter; that's a bit easier than saying "the woman from work" all the time) was the program Afisha advertised: it was some sort of drum thing. I was willing to try anything and I knew Tanya had already purchased the tickets.

Left work a little early to give myself ample time to get to the Conservatory, which was a good thing as I good lost. Well, not quite lost, confused is more accurate. When Tanya gave me the directions, she told me it was on Nikitskaya Street (Никитская Улица), which is very close to Tverskaya Street (Тверьская Улица), but for some reason, when I got out of the metro on Nikitskaya Street, I misremembered the directions and wondered a long block away to Tverskaya Street. Once there, turned left and started down the road in search of the Conservatory. After about 15 minutes in what should have only taken 5 at most, I figured something was wrong. By this time, I was already all the way down at Pushkin Square, and I basically had to complete my square by returning to Nikitskaya Street and heading back to the metro. What a dope. As I said, luckily I left work early as we still had time for a quick bit to eat (fettuccini with, you guessed it, a blin for dessert, but I had to settle for apple since neither chocolate nor wild berries were on the menu) and then over to the Hall.

Turns out, Afisha was a bit mistaken and it listed two performance for the Main Hall that night both at the same time. The one we saw at work was the more modern performance, while what was actually performed was a set of pieces by Tchaikovsky. Unfortunately, I accidentally tossed away all the programs (put them in the wrong pile while packing); I remember the pieces after the intermission consisted of 6 of the 12 months of the year, but I can't remember what they played before intermission. Oh, well.

After the concert, just to stick to my evening ritual, after walking Tanya back to her car, I trekked back over to Red Square to take another look at St. Basil's and Lenin. Trying to be somewhat good, I skipped the blin in the mall and took the metro back to the hotel. However, there is another blini kiosk on the route between the metro and my room, and I could no longer resist - I had to have yet one more; this little booth didn't offer banana with the chocolate, and as it turns out, they were even out of chocolate, so it was a wild berry. Instead of dining al fresco (and when I say fresco, I mean fresco - it was minus 10 or 15 Celsius that night) as some folks do, I got mine placed into a little pouch, transported it the ten minutes or so back to my room and devoured it in the comfort of my surroundings.

Before I left for Moscow, AnneMarie (one of the manager's in my area) gave me the name (Olya) of a contact in Moscow. Turns out AnneMarie is Olya's career mentor, and they thought it would help for Olya to practice her English on me while I was in Moscow. We make plans to go sightseeing one day, and this Saturday (2/17) was it. I wanted to see Novodevichy Monastery, and as it turns out, Olya had never been there. We met on the platform of the metro station closest to our destination at 10 am (I left like such a spy - I was going to tell her I would be the one wearing the white carnation in his lapel, but then I remembered my outer coat doesn't have a lapel) and off we went.

The Monastery has a colorful history and Peter the Great confined his older sister there after her failed attempt to overthrow him, and his first wife (maybe second) also managed to end up there, too. One of the interior buildings housed a display on, you guessed it, icons, which we investigated. The other interesting feature of the Monastery is the cemetery, which after the Kremlin Wall, was the second most prestigious placed in Moscow to be buried. Partly what lends to this prestige was the hosts of famous Russians from the pre-Communist Era. The Lonely Planet provides a basic map of the grounds which indicates where some of the more famous residents are located.

However, before we could make our way over to the cemetery, I had to find the Duck Statues. A friend sent over a link with some pictures of a set of statues that was somewhere in the park surrounding the Monastery. The piece consists of a mother duck along with 8 baby ducks, and from the pictures on the web-page, I had a general appreciation for which side of the monastery I had to be on, but with a foot or two of snow on the group, I wasn't sure how visible these things were going to be. Were not talking gigantic statues here - just slightly larger than life size, and I feared there were buried under a blank of compressed snow.

Olya was a trooper and didn't question my motives as we plodded along in search of my target. Came across a few snow women (not sure if this is customary in that Russians always make snow women or this was part of the Maselnitsa celebration, where the "mascot" is a tall female doll that is burned on the last day, along with all the leftover blini). Anyway, I was just about to suggest we start asking for assistance from passers-by when I spotted my fowl in the middle of the walk way between us and the Monastery. Across a small snow field, and it was time for some photos. It's good thing I took a picture of the plaque so now I can give you a little more on these ducks. "This sculpture is given in love and friendship to the children of the Soviet Union on behalf of the children of the United States. It is based on the beloved American children's story 'Make Way for Ducklings,' by Robert McClosney. The sculptress is Nancy Schön. 1991 Presented by Mrs. Barbara Bush" Never heard of the book, never heard of the author, never heard of the sculptress (did hear of Barbara!), but most importantly, I got the pictures. Of course, I forgot to send the photos to Mark so I better go do that know before I forget again.

OK - sent Mark the note with the pictures, so back to our story. A few people passed by, and I seemed to be the source of a fair amount of entertainment for them as I swept of the plaque, knelt on the ground trying to get some decent shots, running from mom to the ducklings and back again. I wonder if anyone took a picture of me? After snapping said pictures, it was time for the cemetery. Around a corner or two and down the road a piece and there was the entrance. Olya seemed a bit shocked that I was the one playing the role of "guide", but it was only because of The Lonely Planet. We started off in the newer section where we paid our respects (if you can call snapping a photo of their tomb stones "paying respect") to Khrushchev (his monument is half white and half black, to represent the good and evil aspects of his personality), Raisa Gorbacheva (a statue of a forlorn looking woman standing over the slab of a tomb stone), Typolev (a triangular monument with the point down on which is carved his bust along with an airplane, just to remind you he was a famous airplane designer), found a family of Vinogradovs (gotta find out if Fr. Alex is related to them), Gromyko (Minister of Foreign Affairs - this was an interesting one: it was a cube where one side contains a relief of his face and another side contain a negative relief; you'll have to wait until I put the pictures out on the blog to appreciate this one). I wasn't sure how much Olya enjoyed this activity - I must admit it is a bit odd to go sight seeing in a cemetery. However, once we made our way over to the older section, it was like a Who's Who in Russian History: Gogol, Chekov, the workers the sacrificed themselves in order to seal the reactor at Chernobyl, the Tretykov brothers (founders of a famous art gallery), Stanislavsky (founder of a theatre and a method of acting), Bulgakov (writer), Stalin's second wife (Nadezhda Allilueva) along with a host of other characters (whose names escape me right now). At the point, Olya seemed very taken with our task and I no longer felt guilty about dragging her here.

The original plan for the day was to head to Kolomenskoye next (this is an ancient royal country seat) set in the southern portion of town. However, it was a bit away, and we spent much more time at Novodevichy and in the cemetery than I had originally planned. Since it was such a beautiful day with blue skies and sun, I asked to head back to Red Square for a few more photos under these "different" conditions. I also had an ulterior motive: in the exhibition hall where I caught the "Light to the World" on my first Saturday in town there was a new feature: the Honey Market.

Olya was extremely obliging, and back to Red Square it was. However, the view from there wasn't sufficient, so we have to circumnavigate the entire complex again going the long way around (so I could get more pictures from across the river) before working our way back to the Main Exhibition Hall and the Honey Market.

This place was incredible. The hall is extremely large, and it was completely covered by booths of honey vendors. Producers from various regions across the country (and from a few of the newly independent states, too, I think) converge on Moscow for two weeks to sell their wares. For the most part, it is just honey (a few people sell the entire honey comb, there are a couple of products made from honey, but the vast amount of what is sold and bought is simply honey). Who knew there was such a selection and variety of honeys. In general, the honey here is quite different. Instead of the transparent dark brown viscous fluid we are accustomed to squeezing out of bear shaped bottles, the honey here tends to be pale in color (a very dark off-white or light tan) and opaque. The best part of the Honey Market is you get to go from booth to booth sampling all the varieties. Each vendor has a container of little plastic spoons and you simply take a spoon, dip it into the tasting jar, swirl it around a little to pick up some honey, place the spoon in your mouth, let the honey coat your tongue and gently slide down your throat, dispose of the sampling spoon in the receptacle for used utensils, move onto the next sample and repeat. I sometimes use honey in my tea, but it tends to be clover, and these honeys have quite a different taste, and it also varied not only by the region but on the type of flower the bee extracted the pollen from. Some of the honeys had a course, grainy texture (and given my exposure to the amber clover variety, I didn't quite care for the those) while others were smoother and tasted more familiar (well, at least in texture).

When I was here 25 years ago on one of our class trips, we went to Suzdal (a small town outside of Moscow), and I remember getting some honey that was used as spread on dark bread, and it was wonderful. It might have been just that the food, in general, at that time was so miserable that the honey left such an impression on me. However, I forgot about that taste sensation, until the Honey Market brought it all back.

Olya and I sampled a fair number of specimens in my attempt of finding a smooth, creamy variety, similar to what I had in Suzdal. At some point, Olya pointed out that we should have come prepared with something to drink, and she had a point; you can only eat so much honey before it starts to get to you. While we never found what I remember tasting 25 years ago, we made a valiant attempt, but in the end, had to admit defeat. Even though it wasn't particularly late, I started to drag a bit and decided to call it a day.

Before parting, Olya told me about the metro station Revolution Square, which is adorned with large life-size metal statues of people from various walks of life, including a soldier with a dog and another one of a soldier holding a machine gun. Olya informed me people rub the tip of the machine gun to improve their love life and they rub the nose of the dog for general good luck. I expressed surprise (since I didn't think the Soviet man was supposed to be superstitious), which I think she took as an expression of complete disbelief. Since we were both heading to the metro anyway, and Revolution Square wasn't too far away, off we went. Sure enough, the tip of the machine gun is nice and shiny while the rest of the statue is dull and worn, and it was a similar situation for the dog's nose. Of course, I had to get a picture, and just as I started to frame the shot, a train arrived in the station and dispersed it load. I'm not sure if it was just because I was trying to take a picture, but I think every person who passed by felt compelled to touch that dog's nose! Eventually the crowd cleared, and I got my desired picture: one of the just the dog and another one with me touching his nose. Mission complete, it was back to the hotel for me and home for Olya.

The next day, Sunday, was the last day of Maselnitsa. After Liturgy in the morning with Tanya and Sophia, I went back to my room, changed into my play clothes and popped down to the Park of Cultural named after Gorky (usually referred to as Gorky Park in English). Before heading into the park, I decided to swing by Sculpture Park, which is just across the street. This is where some of the monuments to Communist Achievement and old Communists were housed after they were removed from their pedestals across town. Interesting, there are also some more recent pieces here, too, including a tribute to the victims of Stalin's purges.

Just outside the park is another somewhat controversial sculpture. Yuri Lushkov, the Mayor of Moscow commissioned Tsereteli to produce a monument to Peter the Great. The result is a gigantic ship (I would guess it is over 300 feet from the base to the top of the mast) with a rather large Peter standing on the deck looking forward to the future through a telescope. Like the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (which was also designed by Tsereteli - have you noticed a pattern), this monument to Peter also has it critics and its proponents, but the vast majority of people find it abhorrent. Now as a sculpture, I like the concept, and though it is a bit large for the setting, I don't find it that disagreeable. However, I think what most people find distasteful is simply the concept; why construct a monument in Moscow to the man who moved the capital from here to St. Petersburg. It would be almost as inappropriate as erecting a monument to General Sherman in downtown Atlanta. (NOTE: we have a Tsereteli much closer to home; he designed a monument called Tear of Grief, which is a gift from the Russian government as a memorial to the those that died in the attacks on September 11, 2001, and we placed it in Bayonne, NJ.)

After snapping the obligatory pictures (which you'll get to see at some point, I promise), it was back over to Gorky Park. During the winter, they flood the paths, let them freeze and then people just skate around everywhere. I didn't have all that much time, and I didn't feel like waiting on line for rentals, so I had to be content with just slipping along the ice and taking in the scenery. In addition to the skates, they had some traditional games for Maselnitsa: tug of war (where the combatants still had skates on their feet, so that looked like an accident waiting to happen to me) along with some game with people toss sticks at some pegs (kinda like duck pin bowling, but using another pin instead of a ball) and one last game: jump rope. When I first entered the park, I thought what's the deal with that - why are people having such a tough time with skipping rope. Then on the way out, I realized they were doing it on skates over ice! Well that would definitely increase the level of difficulty.

While I was having a good time enjoying this public celebration, Tanya was throwing a blini party for the last day of Maselnitsa, and I didn't want to miss an opportunity for home made blini. And I am extremely glad I didn't as they were the best tasting ones of the lot and I stuffed myself to almost bursting.

However, I am almost embarrassed to admit this. After leaving Tanya's, instead of taking the metro the two stops to the station closest to my hotel, I decided to walk back to my room. By the time I got near the hotel, I had to pass the local blini kiosk, and since I was passing by anyway, I just had to have just one more chocolate blin.

With an overstuffed belly, Sunday came to a close.

End of the sixth journal entry.

Moscow Journal #05 2/6/2007 - 2/11/2007

Beginning of the fifth journal entry
For this entry, I'm going to go back to my traditional style, and we'll just fly by the work days when nothing especially exciting happened. But before we get back to the regularly schedule diary update, a side note from a concerned reader. Carolyn suggested I use a blog to post all my ramblings and then I can also put some pictures in a central location and not clutter up the network lines by sending out the images to everyone on the distribution list. Sounded like a good idea, and Carolyn was even kind enough to set-up the blog for me. Didn't seem like I had all that much more to do other than put some appends out there. Followed the link to the web-page, and she even put my first note out there! What a pal!

Unfortunately, the hosting program, in an attempt to be accommodating to all users, displays the text on the action keys in what it thinks is your native language. Not sure exactly how it makes this determination, but for some reason, the blog program thinks I am in Germany. Until I get back to the States (or possibly during my layover in London) when I hope those keys will display in English, I'll keep sending out notes as normal. However, be prepared - at some point, you'll just get a little note to remind you to go check the blog for an update...

Back to the journal. As I said before, work was/is work, with nothing of particular interest for the first few days. That jumps us from Monday right to Thursday night, when I went to my first concert. Moscow is a city of over 11 million people, which means there are tons of options available for evening entertainment, and there is a fantastic web site ( ) that lists all the possibilities. For my first attempt at an after-work mid-week outing, I opted for a classical concert. Thanks to Afisha, I found the location of the venue (St. Andrew's Anglican Church), and it even listed the closest metro station.

The concert that night was a selection of work from Handel, Bach and Haydn for organ, voice and some woodwind. Even though I was only about 10 rows back and I thought I could identify most instruments, this one had me puzzled; I was torn between oboe and bassoon. Then it dawned on me to look at the program outline, and thankfully my little pocket dictionary had the translation for - oboe. I hope that even without the dictionary I would have figured it out eventually as the Russian word габой sounds more like oboe than bassoon.

I enjoy listening to some classical music (even though I am not an "informed consumer", as evidenced by my inability to identify the oboe), and one of the very nice features of listening to a performance in Russia is that before the players begin, an announcer takes to the stage and gives some information about the pieces on the agenda for that night. This is one of many situations where I wish I had studied more earnestly before coming back to Moscow. All I could get was this composers were not fully understood until the 20th century, blah, blah, blah (or should that be blah-ski, blah-ski, blah-ski?). One last comment about this concert: again, this just might be my untrained ear, but I really think they need to tune the organ at St. Andrew's!
Friday - work. (See, I told you these few journal entries would just fly by).

Saturday - the weekend, time to hit the streets and explore! Since my last visit to the Kremlin was a bit rushed and we didn't get to go inside any of the churches/museums, I opted to return to the heart of Russia and take it all in again. Off to an early start in an attempt to beat the crowds, and I had to make my way across Alexandrovsky Gardens to the ticket window. The snow had been falling gently all night, and the soldiers were out in force shoveling all the paths. With all the army units stationed in the capital, there is no lack of cheap manual labor. To make matters worse, the shovels these guys (not being sexists here, only men serve in the military here, and in theory, service is compulsory for all men, but many guys get exemptions for educational reasons) use are just planks of plywood with a pole attached as a handle. No nice curved metal scoopers or molded plastic models for these guys; just plywood and a broom stick, and most of the poles were not long enough (in my opinion) as every guy had to hunch over to use his shovel; talk about back breaking work!

Anyway, the ticket window opened about 30 minutes before the gates to the grounds, and I secured my entry pass and went to queue up at the main gate. It felt great to nudge out a tour group from Paris and get first in line! (Didn't know about that competitive side of me, did you?)
Passed through the security gate (as if boarding a plane; these security gates guard most tourist attractions and gathering spots, including shopping centers and malls) and headed straight for Успенский Собор (Assumption Cathedral). No one managed to pass me en-route, so I had the entire place to myself (excluding the women who check for the proper tickets on entry to the "museum" and who man the souvenir stalls). Times like these highlight my poor command of the English language as I find it difficult to locate the words to sufficiently describe the beauty of the place and moment. Fr. Alex, while commenting on the decorations of another church we had visited together a few years ago, noted the Russians "fear of empty space," as they just can't leave any portion of a wall unadorned. As you would except, Assumption Cathedral is a prime example of this form of decoration. Indeed, every piece of wall, pillar and ceiling was covered with icons, and there is the iconostasis itself (the wall that separates the nave from the altar). Upon entry to the Cathedral, the sense of amazement is overwhelming, and even though I'm not sure how it could be any more ornate, somehow in this setting it seemed fitting.

The Tsars were coronated in this cathedral and while I'm not a royalist (by no means do I advocate the re-institution of the monarchy and I might get ex-communicated for this, but I don't think Nicholas II and family should have been canonized since he was a weak ruler whose inept administration lead to the rise of the Communist), but to stand in that solemn place and in solitude for about 10 or 15 minutes (not sure what took all the others so long to get here; they must have stopped at some of the outside attractions before coming here), it was almost mystical.

But then the tours started to arrive and the somewhat hushed tones of the various guides in several language dispelled the tranquility of the moment and I took this as a cue to move on. The audio guide I rented (I love these things!) suggested I follow the coronation route of the Tsars, and so I did. After the official crowning ceremony at Assumption Cathedral, the procession moved to Архангельский Собор (Archangel Cathedral). All but one of the Tsars who ruled while Moscow was the capital (Peter the Great moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg, his "window on the West", in 1712) are buried here, and the newly installed monarch would pay tribute to his ancestors here.

This cathedral was not as crowded (all the tour books indicate, and rightly so, that if you are pressed for time and can only visit one site within the Kremlin, it should be Assumption Cathedral, so I guess most people are pressed for time), and while it was almost uplifting to stand in Assumption Cathedral, something about all the tombs in Archangel Cathedral lent the space a more medieval and eerie atmosphere.

While I wandered from tomb to icon to tomb, I noticed a man remove the hat from his head (as custom warrants), but then he proceed to tell his girlfriend she should do the same (contrary to the custom; in working churches, women traditionally keep their heads covered with either a dainty napkin or they go for the full-blown babushka look with the massive shawl tied around the head). Even though this is not a working church, I didn't want the couple to incur the wrath of the babushka later on during their stay in Moscow, so I tried to politely inform them of the custom. Rather quickly determined they were Italian, and they didn't speak any English. Didn't seem like the time for the only phrase I can say in Italian ("mi piace il dolci" which means "I like desserts"), so I managed to grunt in very basic French - "Man - without hat. Woman - with hat."

Hoping I didn't offend them, I continue to wander around and as I gawked at another tomb, this group of 5 people dressed all in black glided past me and took up position in front of the iconostasis. Before I could figure out what was going on, one of them gave the pitch, and they began to sing "Our Father". What was a cold and foreboding surrounding was transformed into a spiritual and uplifting environment; I couldn't ask for more. Once they finished, they returned to a little table near the entrance, where they had a set of CDs for sale. How convenient - my first souvenir from this trip to Moscow.

After paying his respects to his ancestors, the new Tsar (and the rest of the gang) would then make one more (and final) stop in the royal procession - Благовещенский Собор (Annunciation Cathedral). Unfortunately for me (by maybe lucky for you?), that one was closed for renovations.

Since my ticket allowed it, I popped into Патриарший Дворец (Patriarch Palace), which for many years was the largest room in Russia without supporting columns and then into Церковь Ризоположения (Church of the Deposition of the Robe), where I latched onto a guide talking about the Holy Trinity icon to a group of Russians.

In theory, my time within the Kremlin was limited to two hours (the duration of the audio guide rental agreement), and I didn't want to see what penalties were levied for violating that contract. After the in-door sites, I only had a few minutes to wonder around the portion of the grounds open to tourists, and I soaked in a few more minutes of snow gently falling on the Kremlin before returning to the modern world.

Talking of the modern world, that was the next stop on the agenda. A woman at work highly recommended an exhibit at the Museum of Private Collections (Музей Личных Коллекций). During her description, she indicated the exhibit was closing this weekend and that it was extremely popular. However, I am fairly certain she did not mention the style of this artist's work. Anyway, while wondering from the Kremlin towards the museum, I overtook a group of three American girls and I overheard them talking about the Pushkin Museum, which was in the same general area. It wasn't as if i was eavesdropping, but when they seemed to be a bit lost, I figured I should stop and help them get their bearings. The Pushkin is a slightly larger museum and they found their destination quite a bit sooner than I did mine.

Wondering up and down Volkhonka Street, I keep missing the entrance. Eventually asked a set of guards in front of some museum if that was the Museum of Private Collections, and one said yes and the other said no. I felt like I was talking to the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz! I guess my accent through the yes-man off, as I was definitely in the wrong spot. My destination was on the other side of the Pushkin, but off the main road just a bit. The line of people should have been my clue, but I was not functioning on all cylinders, I guess.

Queued up for a while and watched the two workers clear snow from plaza in front of the main door. The exhibit was indeed so popular they only let a finite number of people in at a time, and we had to wait for some folks to leave before being allowed to enter. A few minutes later, the lines shuffled forward and 15 of us were permitted to enter. Down to the cloak room to shed the outer wear ("Your coat is HEAVY!" exclaimed the attendant in another nice application of IK5 - a camera, small tripod, little tour book, pocket dictionary and a few snacks will do that) and then back to the main floor to secure a ticket and an audio guide. Once again, there's a price to pay for being a foreigner as the guides in English are about 50 rubles more than Russian (OK, so that is only about $1.50 or so, but it is the principle of the matter. I guess I should just be thankful they even had English and stop my whining.)

However, it took a little longer than expected to procure the audio guide. A sign on display case for the guides indicated the attendant would be back in five minutes. I guess she was on island time as 15 minutes later, she finally arrived to resume her duties.

Armed with my personal narrator, I entered the exhibition hall only to discover that Filonov (the artist on display) is of the modern variety - and I'm not much for modern art. I much admit I can see how some pieces provoke or invoke certain reactions, but for the most part, I just don't appreciate the items. My favorite piece was the first one on display, and like a good "student" I turned on the audio guide to get the inside scoop on this painting. Hey - this is the same guy who told me all about the Kremlin! It is a good thing I had the guide to give me the inside scoop on these pieces as I would never have seen most of what was being described on my own (and of course, if I see the pictures again, I'm sure I won't remember a thing about them). Even better it was in English because I could barely follow the commentary in my native tongue, I would have been completely lost in Russian.

The woman from work was definitely correct - the exhibit was tremendously popular, so popular the engagement was extended by a month (or possibly two). And not only that, a week or so later, the BBC ran a segment on the display, mentioning the importance of such an exhibit and of Filonov's work in general.

I lasted for almost 2 hours, at which point I was saturated. Returned the audio guide (and this time, the attendant was still at her post so I didn't have to wait a 15 minute version of a 5 minute break), got my coat (which was still heavy, and I was informed of that again) and on the road again. Next stop - Храм Христоса Спасителя (Cathedral of Christ the Savior). As I walked past the Pushkin Museum, the three American girls were making their way in the opposite direction. We exchanged a brief nod and greeting, and I hope they didn't think I was stalking them.

A few minutes of walking brought me to the Cathedral. From 1839 to 1883, the original cathedral was constructed on this site in commemoration of Russia's victory over Napoleon. Stalin demolished that one (probably not personally, but I wouldn't be surprised if he took a swing or two with a sledgehammer) during his reign and intended to replace it with a 900 foot "Palace of Soviets" including a 300 foot statue of Lenin. That building never came to fruition, and in it's place, the Soviets constructed the world's largest outdoor swimming pool.

With the fall of communism and in celebration of Moscow's 850th birthday, this version of the cathedral was completed in just two years at a cost of $350 million. While the structure is immense and beautiful with its huge marble pillars and marbled walls with icons in the Romantic style, even with the enormous iconostasis, the Romanesque architecture just didn't give me the feel of an Orthodox church (or cathedral) to me. I know St. Isaac's in St. Petersburg is off a similar design, but I felt as if I were in St. Paul's in London and not in Moscow. Turns out, I am not alone in my assessment, and most people either love the place or hate it. I wouldn't go so far as to say I hate, but I don't plan on coming here for Sunday services.

After wandering around the upstairs, I could hear the sound of a choir coming from a door leading downstairs. A sign indicated there was church down there (just like there are often many chapels in a Catholic cathedral) and nothing said I couldn't go downstairs, so down I went. I can't remember the name of the church (and I can't believe this, but my Lonely Planet guide doesn't list it either - horrors! My favorite tour book is letting me down), but this had the look and feel of an Orthodox church to me. The choir must have been off in a side room practicing because I couldn't find them in the church. Content with my little discovery, I felt I could resume my wanderings outside.

A bridge on the far side of the cathedral grounds crossed the Moscow River, which gave me another chance to stroll along the back side of the Kremlin and take in one of my favorite views of the city. Continued circumnavigating the Kremlin by crossing the river again and making my way past St. Basil's and Red Square, which brought Saturday to a close. (Well, I know I ate dinner, but I didn't put anything in my notes about where, so it must not have been anything noteworthy! Just didn't want you to think I skipped a meal.)

On Sunday, Tania and her daughter picked me up at the hotel to take me to their church (the Orthodox Church of St. Andrew, not the same place that had the organ concert earlier in the week). Luckily I had the bilingual outline for the service (prepared by Tanya's aunt Olga, who is a fellow parishioner at St. Gregory's in Wappingers Falls). It was a clear sunny day, the first in many weeks I was later told, and the chiming bells seemed to rejoice in the good weather as we left the ground after Divine Liturgy.

Part of their normal routine for Sunday includes a stop at the diner after services. Yes, Veronica, there is a diner in Moscow. Actually, there are two, both run by the same person. I couldn't pass up a chance to have pancakes with maple syrup (or maple-flavored syrup to be more accurate, not that I am a maple syrup snob) in Moscow, and it was tough finishing up the remains of Sophia's milk shake (milk cocktail, in Russian), but I was up to the challenge.

Fortified with a hearty brunch, we swung by my hotel, where I quickly changed into "play" clothes (do you remember doing that as a kid? When I was in elementary and middle school, we had school clothes, and as soon as you got home, you stripped off the school clothes, put on the play clothes and ran back outside to keep busy with your friends until dinner time, which was 6:00 pm SHARP, but I digress, again) including a pair of snow pants over my jeans, and then it was over to their house so Tanya could pick-up Sophia's winter gear. All dressed for a Moscow winter, we headed off to Silver Island Park (Серебряний Бор). Tanya is an assistant principle at the Anglo-American School in Moscow, and since the primary mission of the school is to serve the children of the staffs of the Canadian, British and American Embassies, Tanya gets certain "diplomatic" privileges, including a red diplomatic license plate on the car. It is good to have a red plate! The park is located in the area of Embassy dachas (recreational homes outside the city center), and with the red plate just you past the barricade guarding the compound. The police also tend not to stop red plates and try to extort fines (bribes) from their drivers...

On the way out to the park, we passed a few ominous looking towers. To me, they appeared to be cooling towards for a nuclear power plant. I commented as such to Tanya, and she assured me (as she posed the same question to locals), that these are strictly for the steam plants that are used to power Moscow and they are not affiliated with an nuclear process. I didn't see the typical dome structure that usually accompanies the cooling towers, so I took her word for it; I hope she is right. (But why should this concern me so much when back home I live within 30 or 40 miles of the Indian Head facility near Peekskill, which just happens to sit on the fault line that runs up the Hudson River.)

At the park, they constructed a tower that housed two slides: a little one and slightly higher one. On each track, a few ramps help raise the level of excitement for the sliders. This type of operation would never exist (at least not in an organized fashion where have to pay a small fee to use the facilities, like here in Moscow) back home. You didn't have to sign any waivers, parents didn't have to escort the children, and if you were stupid (or unattentive) enough to stand in the path of oncoming sliders and got knocked over, well, that is just your own fault.
While this park in particular might not be accessible to the "average" Russian, I am sure the typical Russian participates in similar activities all over the country. (One day, I did see a little boy sledding down the hill next to the Kremlin; if you can sled there, I'm sure you can sled anywhere).

By this time in my trip, the temperatures in Moscow finally dropped below those in New York, and after an hour or two, the kids got a bit chilled (and I think Tanya even more so). It was back home for Tanya, Sophia and one of Sophia's friends who happened to be at the park, too, while I hit the road again and made my way over to Sport Complex Luch (Спортивний Комплекс Луч). It was just a few metro stops away followed by a half-mile or so walk.

This was not a major match, and this sports club, while a nice facility, is not a well known venue. According to the map, it looked like it was actually closer to metro stop Perovo (Перово), but Afisha told me to get off one stop earlier at Enthusiasts Avenue (Шоссе Энтусиастов). This part was even chillier, and wind picked up a bit to make it even that much colder. I was very glad to still have my snow pants, and I decided then and there to continue wearing them every single day for the rest of my stay in Moscow. Not only do they help to keep the wind off your legs, but they help keep the grime off the bottom of your pants. I have no clue how the Russians managed to not get their cuffs soiled while walking around these mushy, slushy streets.

Anyway, just a couple of hundred meters from the metro station, a young woman came up to me and asked which station was closer: the one I just got out of or Perovo. I told her the one I just got out of, and what did she do? She turned around and headed AWAY from the station and towards the other one. Now I know I didn't screw up this one and accidentally but in a "not"; did she my accent and then decide I must not know what I was talking about? No clue.

A few minutes later, turned off the main street and down the appropriate side street. Blocks in Moscow are huge, and as such, there are often building behind the ones on that face the street. Supposedly the naming convention used in the address helps you figure this out, but I am not quite tuned into that system. While I was looking for address 10, another guy came up to me and asked where Luch was. I told him I was searching, too, and then I fell in behind him. It took a few more stops for directions (and I am not sure if I would have made it without him), but eventually we found the venue. And just in time, too.

We barely had time to sit down, when all of the sudden, the play began. I turned to the woman sitting next to me and asked, "Where was the national anthem?" She responded that in the old days, we sang and nowadays we drink. (The verbs for sing and drink are very similar in Russian, so it sounds much more witty in Russian).

Spartak (the team associated with the Army, which would account for all the uniforms in the audience), defeated their opponents (whose name I can't recall right now - sorry) in 3 games (should have been only two, but Spartak fell apart in the second game), and before I knew it, it was time to leave the venue. I lingered around a bit trying to figure out if there were ever any pick-up games in the facility, but was disappointed to find out they only conducted league games in this gym. Oh, well - so much for trying to get in some vball during this stay - guess I schlepped the court shoes over for no reason.

Back to the hotel and then another uneventful (or unrecorded) dinner, which brings the weekend to a close.

End of the fifth entry.