The following is a day-by-day account of my two-week trip to Moscow in May 2003, pieced together from drunken notes made every evening around the kitchen table of the apartment where we stayed.


1 May 2003, Thursday

Other than the fact I loaded two suitcases into my car before leaving for work, May 1 felt like any other Thursday morning. It was hard to believe I’d be on my way to Moscow with Aleksey in about eight hours. We would be spending two weeks in the Russian capital, with Lisa and Chris joining us for the second half of the trip. Work zoomed by in no time, and at lunchtime, Jennifer was driving us to IAH.

About 14:30 (Russia uses 24-hour time, so I’ll do the same here), boarding began for our Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt, Germany. We took our seats -- Alex on the aisle to my right, an empty seat to my left and a thin Asian girl on the left aisle -- and settled in for the 10-hour flight. It was then that a 400-pound giant ambled into the plane and attempted to squeeze himself into the empty seat. I’m not kidding when I say 400 pounds: the stewardess had to bring him an extender when the seatbelt fell far short of latching around his rolls of fat. He looked like a lumberjack that had eaten another lumberjack. My face went pale, and Alex could hardly suppress his laughter. Lucky for us, the girl on the other aisle quickly took matters into her own hands and moved to an empty seat. Gargantuan was able to slide over, and I was able to breath comfortably again.

 

2 May 2003, Friday

Despite our pre-take off excitement, the rest of the flight proved uneventful. We changed planes in Frankfurt and flew another three hours to Moscow, arriving in Russia well fed but running on next-to-no sleep. It was about 14:00. An employee from our company’s office in Moscow picked us up at the airport, drove us to a grocery store and then to the apartment we’d be staying at during our trip.

Ah, the apartment: a typical Cold War-era building, about 10 stories, maybe 200 or so apartments, on the north side of the city. The common grounds were filthy. This was Alex’s ex-mother-in-law’s home where we were graciously allowed to stay, seeing as she was visiting her daughter in the U.S. It looked something like the set from The Honeymooners, only more cramped (OK, it’s probably not fair to compare a real apartment to a fictional one, but you get the idea). This would be our home base while in Moscow.

Figuring we didn’t want to waste any time, we fought off the schleepy-poopies and decided to head into town. But first, a quick aside about mass transportation. The Metro is much like any metropolitan subway system. It runs most of the day, with the last train about 1:00 in the morning. Busses, however, are a whole different animal in Moscow. Unlike an American bus, you don’t pay as you get on. Instead, after you board, a ticket taker will approach you and ask for the fare (seven rubles, or about 22 cents; the exchange rate during our trip was about 31 rubles to the dollar). If there is no ticket taker on your bus, which happened to us frequently, then you ride for free. It’s not unlike gambling…

It was a short bus ride to the Metro station, and after about 20 minutes on the train, we were in the “city center” of Moscow. I followed Alex through the streets as we looked for a place to grab a pevo (Russian for beer) and a bite to eat. We turned a corner and boom, there it was, Red Square. Just like you see it in movies and on TV. Alex got a kick out of my surprise, as he never told me this was where we were headed.

At the foot of the Kremlin, we stumbled into a bar that would prove to be our Sherlock’s away from Houston. The Phlegmatic Dog (see a review here) was a brand new Internet pub, and we took to it quickly. Our bartender, Julia, was a cute blonde Russian girl who spoke no English. We quickly had two beers in front of us, ordered burgers and began to battle the crappy little device that substituted for a keyboard at this place. After much frustration, they brought us a full-sized keyboard and a mouse (something they would do every time we walked in the front door from here on out) and we set about emailing our friends to let them know we’d arrived in Moscow. We were fading fast, however, and needed a pick-me-up. That’s when Alex spied cans of Red Bull (the apparently universal energy drink) behind the bar. And it goes so good with vodka…

We stumbled out of the bar near midnight and wandered around Red Square. After paying a visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we ran into a guy who wanted to sell me a furry Russian hat (ushanka). A little haggling later and I was the proud owner of a black, rabbit fur ushanka. Alex teased me mercilessly, but then asked to try it on. He wore it the rest of the night, and even had his picture taken with a man dressed up like a Czar. As the night wound down, we visited a rest room in a McDonald’s (pretty much like you’d expect) and rode the Metro back home.

 

3 May 2003, Saturday

 We woke up to a beautiful day: blue skies, sunny weather and temperatures in the 70s, which would prove to be the norm during our trip. The locals told us Moscow was having a late spring, but I suspect we brought some Houston sun along with us. Hell, the fat guy on the plane was almost as big as the sun. Then tragedy struck. We realized that we’d forgotten to buy coffee and tea at the store. Still groggy, the two of us caught a bus to the market, purchased our much-needed caffeine-laden beverages, a jug of water, some fresh fruit and returned to the apartment for breakfast.

We had decided to spend the day visiting Alex’s cousin Oksana who lived in Zelenograd (Green City), a northern suburb of Moscow, with her husband Volody and their two sons. Oksana and Volody spoke no English, and I knew about five Russian words. Alex prepared himself for a long day of translating. As we had no car -- we wouldn’t be renting one until Lisa and Chris joined us -- getting there proved to be quite an adventure. We caught a bus to the Metro, and switched trains once, before trouble started. Due to construction, we’d reached the end of the line. I’d have been lost without Alex. Being a native Muscovite, he knew the public transportation system like I know baseball stats. Unfazed, we left the Metro tunnels and took another city bus to the place we were to catch “The Express” – a non-stop Greyhound-like bus to Zelenograd. Here, after much trial and error, Alex found the Express and we got on. And we sat. And sat. Express my ass! Apparently the bus wasn’t leaving for a while and the driver was surly and obsessed with sending text messages on his cell phone (an activity I eventually saw many Russians partake in). Finally, the bus started up and we drove about 40 minutes to the suburbs.

Upon our arrival in the city, we headed to a flower shop. It is customary to present gifts and flowers to your hosts, and all we had so far was a bottle of Jamaican rum I’d bought at the duty free shop (everybody sing: I like to stop at the duty free shop!). I was about to be the first American Alex’s relatives had ever met, so I wanted to do this right. We found a nice bouquet and I pulled out my credit card to pay for it. Despite the sign in the window that said they accepted Visa, the girl at the store acted like I’d just handed her warm feces. When Alex couldn’t figure out what the trouble was, I took back my card and went to Plan B: rubles.

When we approached his cousin’s building, Alex informed me of another Russian tradition. You always take your shoes off when you enter someone’s home. With this fresh in my mind, I met Oksana and Volody and then bent over to slip off my shoes. Oksana wasn’t very pleased. Apparently she was both afraid I’d get cold and fearful my American sensibilities would be offended. Eventually, Alex convinced her to let me keep my shoes off. (She later brought us both slippers to wear.)

Oksana and Volody were wonderful hosts. Their apartment was a little bigger than the one we were staying in, but very much in the same style. The home was deceptively modern: the kids even had high speed Internet access. Alex told me we’d likely stay the night in Zelenograd as Volody enjoyed drinking and talking. I’d soon learn just how true that was. We talked for a short bit in the living room and then moved to the kitchen table for a late afternoon dinner.

As I surveyed the table, which was covered with 10 or more dishes filled with food, I noticed a shot glass by each plate (except for the two boys). Volody quickly filled them from a chilled half-liter Vodka bottle, and raised his glass for a toast. Alex switched gears into semiprofessional translator and we were off to the races. The first thing I learned is Russians eat a dill pickle after vodka, much like you’d bite a lime after a tequila shot. I can’t believe it took me 35 years to find out about this great combination. It puts pork chops and applesauce to shame. We ate and talked for what seemed hours, while Russian MTV played in the background. The food was wonderful: mushrooms, potatoes, salmon, ham, olives, pickles and salad. In Russia, almost all side dishes are referred to as salad. This made it difficult to know what I ate, as every dish I asked about was apparently called salad.

I was full and buzzing from numerous vodka shots, when Alex asked me “What was that Russian dish your mother used to make you?” I’d told him before: I loved Chicken Kiev since I was a kid. Oksana beamed and uncovered a pan filled with Chicken Kiev. I hadn’t realized that the main course was still to come! But I can always find room, and it was delicious.

Eventually, we decided to go for an after-dinner stroll around the neighborhood. I strapped on my camera and off we went. There were a large number of apartment buildings, and people were everywhere. We saw children, babushkas (little old Russian women), ponies and dogs eating pony poo… Everyone it seemed was out to enjoy the evening, although I’m not sure what time it was. During our trip, the sun went down close to 22:00 and came up around 5:00. We stopped by a store to buy more vodka; we’d already finished at least two bottles at the house. And Alex and I bought some Red Bull, which they had never tried. (Plus the rum had gone over big with Oksana. She really enjoyed the rum and Coke I kept mixing for her.)

When we returned, Volody kept pouring the vodka, and we swapped toasts, jokes, philosophy and politics late into the night. Oksana smartly slipped to bed around midnight, while the men remained drinking and talking almost until dawn. Alex and I slept in the kids’ room (they must have been in the living room).

 

4 May 2003, Sunday

We woke about 11:00 to an overcast day. Amazingly, I had no hangover. Oksana made us breakfast (sausage and cauliflower) before we decided to head back into Moscow. We walked to the bus stop and hopped on the Express. The ride back ranks among the worst two hours of my life. The entire trip was in start-and-stop traffic, the bus lurching repeatedly. The fumes from the bus and other cars were almost unbearable – and I’m sure the heavy night of drinking didn’t help matters. There was even a leak in the roof, so water dripped on my shoulder throughout the ride. After the first 10 minutes, I thought I was going to be sick. I could feel the sausage and cauliflower doing cartwheels in my stomach. I looked around. The window wasn’t very accessible. If I was going to vomit, was it acceptable to ask the bus driver to stop? I shut my eyes and swallowed hard. Alex later admitted he was suffering just like I was, but we both sat quietly, fighting back the urge to regurgitate, until we finally arrived at the Metro station.

The train ride back was interrupted by an emergency bathroom stop by Alex. This is when I discovered that portable toilets, many of which amusingly say “Toi-Toi” on their sides, are not free in Moscow. Usually, a woman sits nearby to collect the five-ruble fee and hand out toilet paper. Well, in this situation, Alex had neither exact change nor the time to wait for the attendant to make change. He handed her a 100-ruble bill and entered the facility. A minute after he closed the door, the woman began pounding on the Toi-Toi. “I have your change!” Needless to say, he wasn’t too concerned about his refund at that point.

By the time we arrived at our local Metro station, the memories of the Express bus were fading (although I fear they will haunt me forever). Alex decided to check on tickets for a football match. Amazingly, in a city of some nine million people, he knew the girl working at the ticket office. Apparently, she married a friend of Alex’s, but was now divorced and dating her ex-husband’s best friend. Note to TV executives: Jerry Springer could do well in Moscow.

We got home and fell quickly asleep. This was to be our one wasted day in Russia. We eventually got moving again, cooked a frozen pizza and drank a few beers while we marveled at surviving our near double-puker on the Express.

 

5 May 2003, Monday

It was cold and rainy, but looking back, I can’t complain. It was the only bad weather we had during our trip. We decided over breakfast that it would be a good day to visit our company’s Russian office. After a short Metro ride, we walked a couple blocks to IHS Moscow. The building looked fairly new, and the interior was nicer than our Houston offices. Alex introduced me to Margaret, the office manager, and several other employees. Some, including Margaret, even spoke English! This was a great thing, as my English was swiftly devolving into a primitive mess through lack of use. We checked our email before heading to lunch at the John Bull pub, an English-style bar in the Arbat area. Their white mushroom soup was incredible. As it catered to Brits in Moscow, I was able to read an English-language newspaper.

We next wandered through Old Arbat, a tourist’s paradise. Here you can buy souvenirs, matryoshkas (the Russian nesting dolls), military surplus items, paintings, jewelry and anything else you might want to remember your trip. I came away with a San Antonio Spurs matryoshka (Go Spurs!).

From Arbat, we walked to the new Christ the Savior Cathedral, a beautiful white and gold building built on the site of an old public swimming pool. Inside it was intricate and rich. No pictures were allowed indoors, but I did sneak a 30-second video clip (warning: very large file) with my digital camera. Near the church is Lenin’s Library, a magnificent-looking place we were unable to enter. Apparently, you need special permits to do research there.

Alex wanted to take me to see Lenin’s tomb, so we returned to Red Square. But we were too late to see Lenin: he was only on display for a few hours each day. However, we happened to pass by the changing of the guard in front of the Unknown Soldier’s tomb, so the trip wasn’t for naught.

Back at the office, Margaret bought us coffee in the cafeteria and we made a few phone calls. She recommended a nearby restaurant for dinner, so Alex and I headed there for shashlik (Ukrainian shish-kabobs) and pevo.

On the way home, we swung by the grocery for some snacks and more pevo, then walked home through the neighborhood Alex grew up in. We finished off the day watching the Russian hockey team lose to the Canadians 5-2 on TV. The apartment was damn cold. Good thing I had my new ushanka to keep me warm!

 

6 May 2003, Tuesday

For the second day in a row, we took the Metro into the office to start our day. I had to recharge my digital camera battery, and there was a converter there (it wasn’t until later that I realized my charger didn’t require a converter... d'oh!).

A quick bus ride and we were standing before a monument dedicated To the Conquerors of Space. Built in the 1960s, it depicts a soaring rocket and towers 100 meters into the sky. In front of the monument is a statue of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the founder of theoretical astronautics. Alex told me how, in his youth, he and other children would slide down the sloping base of the monument.

Our next stop was the All-Russian Exhibition Center, which consists of numerous pavilions built to showcase Soviet achievements in technology, space, agriculture and industry. The pavilions surround several ornate fountains. I found it kind of like the World Showcase portion of Epcot Center, but less commercial. The weather was beautiful -- about 70 degrees and sunny -- so we strolled leisurely around the park and snapped a lot of pictures.

On our way back to the Metro, Alex bought a great Radiohead CD for just 100 rubles (about $3.25). We returned to the office to get my camera battery and grabbed lunch at the cafeteria.

From there, we were off to meet an old friend of Alex’s. Before moving to the U.S., Alex had worked with Nik in Ireland and Moscow. We met in an Irish pub, and proceeded to drink countless pints of Baltika -- I fell in love with Baltika’s Porter on this vacation, as well as another beer called Stary Melnik. Nik didn’t speak much English, but his German was on par with mine… in other words, not so good either. This didn’t stop the three of us from swapping stories well into the evening hours. As we were getting ready to part ways, we noticed that our table had an inscription on it, “1999: This table reserved for [Name Withheld] and friends.” We figured it was a tribute to a deceased regular before finding out the guy was sitting at the bar behind us. We thanked him for allowing us to sit at his table and stepped outside.

Nik headed home to his wife, while Alex and I decided to take a long walk to eat dinner at the Phlegmatic Dog. On our way through Red Square, we saw the Russian military preparing for the May 9 parade -- lots of vehicles and soldiers. We settled into what would become ‘our’ table at the Dog during the trip, ordered some Stary Melnik and buffalo wings, and started emailing like the drunken fools we were. About this time, I commented to Alex that I was losing my ability to speak in complete sentences. I was talking like an American caveman, using primitive syntax and one-syllable words in an attempt to be understood more easily by Russians. “I know exactly what you’re talking about,” said a man sitting at a nearby table. My mind raced. That was English! We invited the guy to join us. Pal, who was from Norway, was visiting Moscow on business and spoke fluent English. After he pulled up a chair, the waiter brought him his drink order: a shot glass filled with green liquid, a straw and a cigarette lighter. This drink was called the Phlegmatic Dog, and after seeing Pal melt his straw while consuming the flaming shot, Alex and I knew we had to try it too. To make a long story short, here is a free piece of advice. The next time you drink a flaming beverage, try not to start your shirt on fire. I learned this the hard way.

With a scorch mark on my shirt and Pal in tow, we headed back to the Irish pub to watch a football match. We ended up hanging out with the not-so-dead guy (he was a bastard) and some of his friends (they were pretty cool) until after midnight. After watching a guy fumble with the timer on his camera, I played Good Samaritan and took a picture of him and his wife. I’m not sure where he was from, he didn’t seem to speak either English or Russian, but apparently I was now his friend for life. He even asked for my business card so he could email me a picture he snapped of Alex, Pal and I. By the way, I’m still waiting for that photo…

The last Metro train runs about 1:00, so Alex and I decided to head home. Pal told us he knew a guy in a band playing at the Dog on Thursday, and we agreed to meet him for the show. At our Metro stop, we never saw a bus, so we “hitchhiked” to the apartment. Hitchhiking in Moscow is commonplace but unlike the American version. You hold out your hand and it’s a matter of seconds before someone pulls over. The people who pick you up are more like freelance cabdrivers: you tell them where you want to go, a price is agreed upon and off you go. We paid 50 rubles (about $1.60) to get home.

 

7 May 2003, Wednesday

After our late night, we slept in and had a lazy morning. Alex even washed a load of clothes (the first of many) while we ate breakfast. When it came time to wash the dishes, Alex made a startling discovery. There was no hot water. Panicking, he called the woman who had been apartment sitting before we arrived. She told him that she’d heard something about maintenance that might require the hot water be shut off for up to two weeks. Two weeks! To quote what I wrote in my notes that day, “we shit pants.” However, she gave us the number of the building maintenance and Alex stopped sobbing long enough to call them. I can’t describe the relief we felt when they told us the hot water problem would be fixed in a matter of minutes.

The nice weather we experienced on Tuesday proved to be the norm for the remainder of our trip. In fact, today would feel downright hot. Our first stop of the day would be at a Bankomat (the Russian automatic teller machine). We needed to pool our resources to the tune of about 14,000 rubles (nearly $450) so we could rent a car for the remainder of our trip. With Lisa and Chris joining us, we figured having a car would make sense. Alex had called around and found a place that would cost just $20 per day, but they didn’t take credit cards and required a 9,000-ruble deposit.

The hot water scare should have tipped us off to the way this day would play out, but we were oblivious. It took what felt like an eternity of wandering the streets to find the rental place (we later realized signs were posted everywhere, but we failed to notice them). Hot and sweaty, we found out the place would not rent a car to Alex -- get this -- because he was Russian. Evidently Russian citizens are required to show an internal passport that Alex didn’t bring along. So despite the fact he and I each had a passport and a Texas driver’s license, I was the only one they’d deal with. They had no qualms renting a car to an American who’d never driven in a foreign country. So I faced the mountain of paperwork (all in Russian) they called a rental agreement. Alex translated the forms and I blindly signed where they pointed. Then we handed over our 14,000 rubles and went to get the car. It was a Vaz, made by Fiat, a tiny four-door automobile. An employee walked us through a full inspection of the car -- I use the word vehicle loosely, as this piece of crap barely qualified -- and we were off.

Traffic in Houston is terrible. The city ranks among the worst in the U.S. But rush hour in Houston is nothing compared to the insanity of Moscow traffic. The drivers are psychotic. I saw people turn left from the right-hand lane, drive the wrong way down roads, drive on the sidewalks, it was total chaos. And the traffic jams were unbelievable. I even saw a fire truck turn off its siren after the firemen realized no one was going to get out of their way. Twice on our trip, traffic was so bad we abandoned the car in the first available parking spot in favor of walking or taking the Metro. The car was nice for a handful of excursions, but it proved to be more trouble than in was worth.

We swung by the office and then grabbed lunch at Sbarro (Cbappo in Russian), before driving to Sparrow Hill (Vorobyovy Gory). This is an overlook near the State University campus where souvenirs are sold. The view of Moscow was great from the hill, except for the blanket of pollution covering the city. We bought several matryoshkas and assorted items from a guy who spoke great English. He reminded me of the guy who sells concert tickets in the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Mike Damone. When I found a Green Bay Packers matryoshka for my dad, he asked me, “You like Green Bay, how about Tampa Bay?” Hey, they’re both bays, right?

We decided to move along, and walked back to the car. Only in our possession for a matter of hours, it had already turned against us. The damn thing wouldn’t start. Frustrated, we found a pay phone, but it could only be used with a calling card. Alex knew where a Metro station was, so we started walking. The station was recently renovated and lucky for us had just reopened. We were able to buy a phone card so we could call the rental company. However, it had been a long hike to the Metro, and it was now after 17:00. We crossed our fingers and hoped the place would still be open. Alex dialed. They were open until 21:00, and their solution was brilliant. They’d replace it. All we had to do was push the car, pop the clutch and drive it in. And they didn’t seem too shocked that it had died, so we suspected this happened to their cars frequently. We walked back to Sparrow Hill and pushed the Vaz into the middle of rush hour traffic. Lucky for us, it was as light as an old Volkswagen Beetle. Alex was able to get it going quickly, I hopped in and we were able to get it back to the rental office. Our replacement Vaz proved to be an unwashed twin of the first.

By this time, we realized this wasn’t our day. We’d had a hot water scare; we’d gotten lost; Alex was unable to rent a car; and that same car had died on us. We swung by a grocery store and headed home to take shelter for the night. We cooked pelmeni (Russian dumplings) with garlic and chili sauce for dinner. After drinking a few pevo, we checked the hot water (still hot) and called it a night.

 

8 May 2003, Thursday

We looked out the window to see if the Beast (as our crappy little Vaz would soon become known) was still there. It was. I suppose no one would want to steal it. Today would be the last day exploring Moscow as a pair. On Friday, Lisa and Chris would arrive from Houston to join us for the second week. We were still trying to figure out some fun things to do once they arrived, so we drove to a theater where Chicago (the musical, not the film) was playing to check prices. They ranged from $3 in the back to $100 for the good seats. They had a little model of the theater so you could see the layout.

Then we were off to Moscow’s statue park (seems like there should be a better name for it, but if there is, I haven’t been able to find it). Yep, you guessed it, a park full of statues. There were sculptures ranging from traditional busts to modern art, from tiny to fricking huge. This was a photographer’s dream. And I took full advantage. Across from the park is a new towering monument to Peter the Great on the Moscow River. Some might consider it an eyesore, but it sure is fun to photograph. We also swung by the entrance to Gorky Park, but decided to wait for our other friends’ arrival to explore it.

Next, we drove to Old Arbat to do a little more shopping and grab lunch. We parked right in front of a McDonalds, and admittedly a bit curious, we went in. The major differences between U.S. McDonalds and their Russian counterparts (besides all the Russians): in Russia, you get more fries and you have to pay five rubles per pack of ketchup. Like most of the world there is no Quarter Pounder, so we both had the Royal With Cheese combo meal. We sat across from two young teenage girls who promptly stopped speaking English when they realized were we American. I found this to be quite common, that even the Russians that spoke English were to shy to do so.

We finished lunch, walked through Old Arbat and ended up in a place called the Shamrock Pub in New Arbat. There we sipped pints of Kilkenny, listened to Chris Rea on the radio and noticed that this pub employed an extraordinary number of waitresses. There were only about five patrons, but at least 10 employees. Maybe they were expecting a rush.

The new X-Men movie opened in Moscow today -- we’d been seeing billboards and posters all week -- so we decided to go see it at the American Cinema, one of a handful of theaters that doesn’t dub movies. Instead, they give you a set of headphones if you want to hear it translated. On our way to the theater, we swung by the Bolshoi to check on tickets, but the box office was closed. When we arrived at the cinema, we found out movie tickets have assigned seats. The theater was pretty empty though, so you could realistically sit anywhere you pleased. The movie was a lot of fun, except for some guy who kept talking on his cell phone. I guess he figured everyone was wearing headphones anyway.

After the film, we drove home to change, then dropped the car off at the office and took the Metro to our Internet pub to enjoy the rest of the evening. We talked with Julia, the bartender, ate some food, drank some Stary Melnik and emailed our friends back in Houston, who were just starting their days. Our new Norwegian friend, Pal, showed up after a while with his camera phone. This proved to be a lot of fun. He was able to take pictures of the band and us and email them to our Houston friends. (Needless to say, I now own a camera phone too.) The band was a lot of fun. They were a loud, guitar-based band with a lot of energy and they played silly 1980s synthesizer-based pop songs in an angry punk rock style.

Before the night got out of hand, we decided to head home early… well, maybe not early but before 1:00… On the drive home, we saw our first Moscow accident. As crazy as drivers are in Moscow, I couldn’t believe it took this long to see an accident. Then, another mile or so down the road, we saw a large white object in the street. As we passed it, we realized it was a person: a fat dead guy to be more specific. He was just lying in the road, no car in sight. “Maybe he’s sleeping,” offered Alex. We freaked out.

We swung by the store for some pastries and pevo before arriving at the apartment, where we sat and drank to the fat dead guy. Most every night, we’d end our day sitting at the kitchen table with a cold beer. We’d talk, write down what we’d done during the day, and listen to the radio. Russian radio was a blast. A single station would play a confusing mix of current hits, 80s and 90s pop music, classic rock and Russian and European artists. I even heard “Silent Night” once (and this was in mid-May). In no particular order, here are a few artists I recall hearing on Russian radio: Electric Light Orchestra, Chris Rea, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bon Jovi, Nirvana, Pink Floyd, Ozzy Osbourne, Tom Petty, Radiohead, Whitesnake, Dire Straits, Bad English, Natalie Imbruglia, Sixpence None the Richer, Pink, Christina Aguilera, Bonnie Tyler. As for Russian artists, I don’t know many acts, but I heard Tatu (the teenage lesbian pop sensation) and Via Gra (a trio of sexy women whose single was incredibly popular).

 

9 May 2003, Friday

After awaking and eating breakfast, we decided to spend Friday at Victory Memorial Park to take in the May 9 celebration. However, when we went down to get the car, we discovered one of the rear tires was flat. This would prove to be a recurring problem -- an apparent slow leak. The Beast could not be tamed. There was a garage across the street, so we had them fill it with air for 20 rubles. We tried to tip the guy, but he couldn’t seem to understand why we’d pay more than we had to. On the premises, there was a kennel that housed a litter of puppies. And yes, Russian puppies smell just like their American counterparts.

Another beautiful day, we arrived at Victory Park (Park Pobeda) to discover it was packed with Russians. The complex is located near the Triumphal Arch, similar to France’s Arc de Triumph, which commemorates the victory over Napoleon in the War of 1812. The Park was opened in 1995 and is dedicated to the victory over Germany in 1945, hence its popularity on May 9.  In the park’s center stands a towering monument, like a saber reaching to the heavens. A statue of St. George slaying the Dragon stands at its foot. Behind the monument is the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. The park also includes an Orthodox Church, a Mosque and a Synagogue.

Apparently every family in the greater Moscow area was in attendance for the festivities. There was music and food, and people were flying kites in the clear blue skies. There was even a Lenin impersonator. We wandered through the sea of Russians. Part of me wishes I’d been able to explore the park on a normal day, as we weren’t able to do much real sightseeing. But whom am I kidding? Basking in the May 9 spectacle was an incredible experience.

As we made our way back to the Beast, we realized the main road had been blocked off. How were we supposed to drive to the airport, where we were headed next? Just as we started to panic, Alex pointed up the street. A handful of police cars were coming toward us. Behind them was a black limousine. Putin, the Russian president was arriving at Victory Park. I wish I hadn’t already put my camera away, as he drove right past us. A minute later, the road was reopened. We found the car -- the tire was still inflated -- and we were off to the airport.

At the airport, we checked our friends’ arrival time -- they were scheduled to land on time -- and found the nearest bar. I love watching people at airports, and this was no exception. After a while, we made our way down to the gate and waited near the customs exit. Several people were coming out wearing masks (a flight had just come in from Hong Kong and this was the beginning of the SARS scare). Chris and Lisa finally emerged, luggage in tow. Our group was now a foursome.

We swung by a grocery store and then on to the apartment to drop everything off and get cleaned up. Our plans for the evening: to head to Red Square for the V-Day fireworks and then on to the Dog for food, pevo and fun. We dropped the Beast off at the office, and took the Metro to the City Center. Evidently, every family that had previously been at Victory Park was now waiting for the fireworks at Red Square. The place was wall-to-wall people. The fireworks show began, and what a dud it was. Maybe we were just spoiled Americans, with unrealistic expectations. No. The show was simply terrible.

Realizing the fireworks were not going to entertain us, Alex decided to get us closer to the Internet pub, which was on the opposite side of the Kremlin. Every direction we went was blocked, every attempt spoiled by another police blockade. None of us had eaten since lunch and it was now nearing midnight as we continued to weave through Moscow, our pub always just out of reach. Finally, frustrated and half-starved, we found a row of restaurants. We scanned a few menus to be sure Lisa would be able to find a vegetarian meal and settled on an outdoor café. Alex began to order for us, as our waitress spoke no English. This was a lengthy process. Once our meals were ordered, she returned to inform Chris and I that our food was unavailable. We changed our orders, but they were out of that as well. I was beginning to feel like we were on a hidden camera show. Eventually, the chef came out to explain the V-Day crowds had been huge, which is why they were out of so many items. He told us what was still available, and our meals arrived a short while later. The highlights: real Czech Budweiser (not the crappy American beer, which is known simply as Bud in Europe) and wonderful mushroom soup.

Well-fed and tired, the four of us returned to the car and drove back to the apartment. Lisa went straight to bed, while the men stayed up for a nightcap around the kitchen table.

 

10 May 2003, Saturday

Russians love juice. The juice section in the supermarkets is unbelievably large. Orange, apple, cherry… I even saw banana juice. With that in mind, there are few activities more enjoyable than mispronouncing Russian. Seeing as the Cyrillic alphabet and our western alphabet share many letters, there are a lot of Russian words that look like English. For instance, the Russian word for “juice” sounds like “sock” but it is written COK. There is nothing funnier than pouring yourself a glass of juice in the morning from a carton that says “100% COK” in bold letters.

The morning started with a drive to one of the more famous monuments in Moscow, the Industrial Worker and the Collective Farmer. This stainless steel sculpture is about 80 ft high and depicts a man and woman holding aloft the famous hammer and sickle symbol of the USSR. Very cool.

From there, we drove to Red Square to Lenin’s tomb. For those of you who don’t know, the body of Lenin was preserved after his death in 1924 and is on display for a few hours each day at a mausoleum in Red Square. On the weekends, a large part of the square is blocked off so you can only approach Lenin’s tomb from a single direction. Supposedly the lines used to be incredible, but there is not much of a wait any more. Hovering around the tomb were several “guides” who want you to pay them to walk through the tomb. Interestingly, it is free without them…

The four of us decided to split into pairs. Two would take the tour, while the others held our bags, coats and cameras. Apparently, gawking is permitted but photos are not. Chris and I went first, which meant we were interpreter-free for a while. We were checked for cameras before beginning our stroll to the tomb, where we were checked again. Inside, the temperature is downright cold, like a walk-in refrigerator. I was going to refrain from using the term “meat locker” as it conjures up bad imagery considering we were about to see a dead guy, but it was like a meat locker in there. There was little light in the dark passageway, which wound around and down with numerous guards posted along the route. There is no talking permitted (Lisa and Alex were apparently shushed on their trip), so the silent walk had an appropriate air of solemnity. We turned a corner and there he was -- a real historical figure (and the second dead guy I’d seen on our trip to date). The father of the revolution was dressed in a suit, lying in state on white sheets right in front of us. We circled his final resting place slowly. It’s impossible to take your eyes off him. Rumors circulate about how much of Lenin actually remains, and how much may be wax, but he looked pretty good. Like he might wake up from his nap any time. The man has some amazing embalmers, and apparently there are several celebrities who want a similar postmortem treatment (yes, Michael Jackson is one of them).

Chris and I exited the tomb and started back toward Lisa and Alex. Apparently we weren’t supposed to do this as a guard started blowing a whistle at us. Instead of taking the direct route back, we were paraded past the graves of several other Russian leaders and heroes and let out on the wrong end of Red Square.

Eventually, we made it back to the entrance to let the others have their viewing. While they were gone, Chris and I were treated to a changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In the classic Russian style, the new guards approach the tomb and take their places before the relieved guards march off. They do this every hour during the day, but strangely leave the tomb unguarded at night. Go figure. Although I’d passed the tomb a couple times before, as it is near the Dog, this time it was surrounded by flowers in honor of May 9. We watched as an ancient veteran approached with flowers. The guards saluted him as he placed the bouquet down.

Once Alex and Lisa returned from their Lenin adventure, we headed back to the car. We would spend the afternoon and evening in Zelenograd with Alex’s family. After a quick trip to the store netted us some vodka and food, we headed to the country. During a stop for gas, we realized the rear tire on the Beast was nearly flat again. Luckily the station has a free air pump. Across the street was yet another World War II monument. An unattractive tower of concrete, but I took a picture anyway.

In Zelenograd, we stopped to buy flowers (cleverly paying for them half in rubles, half in dollars) before heading to Volody and Oksana’s apartment. This was a big moment for our Russian friends, as it instantly tripled the number of Americans they’d met. Oksana showed us photos from a vacation she’d taken in at a Russian monastery. To reach the monastery required a boat ride, complete with a monk praying for your safety.

What followed was another fabulous meal, plus a never-ending parade of vodka shots. Chris, who studied Russian history in college, seemed to impress Volody. Like our first trip, we took an after-dinner walk around the town. It was another beautiful day, and even more people were out this time. Lisa got a great shot of a group of babushkas, the stereotypical, tiny, old, stout Russian women that look exactly like you imagine (just close your eyes and picture an old Russian woman). Young Russian women are amazingly beautiful, while babushkas are, well, to put it succinctly, withered. I’m not sure what causes this, but if you’re considering a Russian bride you should probably be aware.

We returned to the apartment and took our seats around the table. Alex decided to lay off the vodka so we could drive back to Moscow, but the rest of us weren’t deterred. Oksana and Volody even broke out their video camera to capture the evening on tape.

As it approached midnight, we decided it was time to return to the city. On our way out of Zelenograd -- keep in mind Alex was driving our car illegally (it was rented in my name) and had been drinking a little -- we passed a police car on the side of the road. The officer waived at the car ahead of us to pull over and took a long look at us. Alex and I held our breath. I’d heard that cops sometimes pull you over for no reason but this was the first time I’d seen it happen. We slowly drove past and it was a while before Alex and I exhaled.

With the night still young, we decided to head to Red Square and hang out at the Dog for a while. Alex was in good shape, while Chris and I were feeling no pain. Lisa was ripped out of her gourd and had begun shouting “Pipiska” (a Russian children’s term for private parts) to anyone who’d listen. Once we’d parked, we followed Alex into a closed mall -- he thought it was a shortcut. As soon as we entered, a security guard started yelling at us. We turned to our trusty interpreter, and Alex started arguing with the guard… in English. It was brilliant! He acted like a stupid American until the guard, who spoke no English, gave up and let us pass.

At the Dog, we sent email and drank pevo. Lisa and Chris found a Russian mail-order bride website that let the viewer rate the women on a scale of 1 to 10. This led to heated debates between the two on practically every girl. Heated enough that the people sitting at the neighboring table got up and moved. FYI: Chris’ standards are a bit unrealistic. When it came time to close the tab, we came up short for the tip. I broke out the lucky $2 bill I keep in my wallet and handed it to our waiter, Vlad. I’ve never seen a waiter so excited. (Memo to self: bring a stash of $2 bills on next Russian vacation.) Alex badgered the poor guy about getting a Phlegmatic Dog t-shirt, but we were told they were only for employees.

 

11 May 2003, Sunday

Today, we would have a fifth person in our growing entourage. Margaret, who is our Russian office manager, decided to join us for a day of sightseeing. This turned out to be a welcome break for Alex, as she spoke good English and could give him a temporary break from his interpreter role. After swinging by the local garage to fill up the Beast’s tire, we drove to Korelev (Rocket City) to pick up Margaret.

It was about this time, on our way into Moscow with Margaret in tow, that Lisa announced she might vomit. I imagine she felt like I had a week before on the Express: she claimed it was part hangover and part carsickness. Regardless, she used this as an excuse to ride in the front seat for the rest of our vacation. Pretty sneaky…

We parked along the Moscow River, in front of the Slavanska Hotel (which houses the American Cinema) where we all stopped to get some rubles from the Bankomat. Chris also wanted to see about getting his camera fixed. Apparently, he was unable to rewind the film after finishing his last role. To make a long story short, we wandered for several blocks to a camera store, where they pushed the “film rewind” button on the camera and handed it back to him.

We paused by a fountain in front of the hotel, where children were splashing about, and headed to our destination: a tour boat on the Moscow River. The two-hour ride up the river was a great way to see the city. Unfortunately, the sky was slightly overcast and not conducive to photography. This didn’t stop me from shooting several roles.

We disembarked and caught the Metro to find a place to eat. The Russian word for restaurant -- PECTOPAH -- sounds more or less the same as it does in English (or French for that matter). But when mispronounced “peck-tow-paw,” it never fails to elicit laughter. Go on… say it out loud a few times. I told you it’s funny.

What wasn’t funny was the pectopah we chose for lunch, Elky-Palky. It seemed like a nice little place, kind of a Russian version of Mongolian barbecue. You filled a bowl with meats, vegetables or pre-made shashlik and then they cooked them for you on two huge grills. The employees were even dressed in colorful traditional Russian uniforms. But it was all downhill from there. To start with, it was one of the only places Lisa had a hard time finding a vegetarian meal (she finally settled on some cheese pastries). Service was beyond slow. One waiter never brought Alex a glass of ice and another refused to bring him napkins. When Chris and I took our bowls of food to one of the grills, an angry chef turned us away, pointing to the other more crowded grill. We turned around, only to be brought immediately back to the first grill by a manager who then yelled at the chef. The lazy chef yelled back, but begrudgingly took our bowls and dumped the contents on his grill. It is very uncomfortable watching a pissed-off chef cook your lunch in front of you. Midway through, the manager reappeared to scream at the cook for not keeping his grill clean. By the time he pulled them off the grill, our meals were seriously overcooked. This experience taught us a valuable lesson: when in Russia, don’t eat at a pectopah where employees are forced to wear colorful traditional uniforms.

We took the Metro back to our car and drove back to Sparrow Hill. Chris and Lisa had not been there yet, and we all had souvenir shopping to do. When I ran into the Fast Times guy who’d sold me the Packers matryoshka, he remembered me as the Green Bay guy. I told him we’d brought some friends along, which made him happy. He even made me a great deal on a religious-themed matryoshka for my mother.

Our souvenir binge continued at Old Arbat. But the highlight of this Arbat trip didn’t involve shopping. It involved a scary-looking monkey in a pink dress. Yes, for a small fee you could have your picture taken with a smelly simian. Lisa, who couldn’t control her excitement, quickly pulled out a wad of rubles. I passed my digital camera to Alex to take some video, while I wielded Lisa’s Canon to preserve the moment in pictures. In case you’re worried, as of this writing, she still hasn’t showed signs of monkey pox… The owners of the monkey also had a snake, and apparently it was a two-for-one deal. Personally, I wanted to see a monkey-snake fight.

Margaret caught the Metro home, and we made our way back to the Beast in search of food. We stumbled on a cool place called Drava, Russian for “firewood.” The inside walls of the pectopah were lined with stacked firewood. It sported a massive buffet and a wonderful menu, and the four of us ate like kings. So what if Alex and I ordered lamb Uzbek but got lamb Bavaria? The meal was top-notch nonetheless. Our waiter was very helpful and tolerant of us crazy Americans. When Alex found himself without his cigarettes, the waiter gave him one from his own pocket.

On the way home, we swung by a supermarket to replenish our pevo supply and to get a few authentic Cuban cigars to enjoy later. While Lisa slipped off to read and sleep, the three men stayed up drinking. We took a walk around the neighborhood and smoked our stogies. Late at night, it wasn’t much different than walking down a road in any American suburb. Also, the night was clear so I am able to report that the Big Dipper looks the same from halfway around the world. Back at the apartment, we drank vodka and pear juice late into the night.

 

12 May 2003, Monday

After our standard morning ritual of coffee, tea and breakfast, we decided to tour the Kremlin today. The four of us hopped in the Beast and started off. As I previously mentioned, traffic in Moscow is beyond any I’ve seen before. During the weekend, things weren’t too bad and we were able to get around quite well. Everything changed on Monday. After an hour in the Beast, we were only a couple miles from the apartment. Tensions were rising, as was the temperature (open windows don’t cool too well when the car isn’t moving). A frustrated Alex spotted a Metro station, so we pulled over, parked the car and opted for the train instead.

Our first stop was St. Basils Cathedral, probably the most famous piece of architecture in Moscow. Unfortunately, due to renovations, green scaffolding covered the entire building. Again, I wasn’t going to let this deter me from taking pictures. Anyone can photograph St. Basil’s but how many get the opportunity to photograph the scaffolding of St. Basil’s?

There was a small entrance fee to tour the building. Alex lucked out, as there was a discount for Moscow residents. Inside the cathedral, it was like an icebox. I mean they could store Lenin in there. Heck, maybe they do after hours… It is a beautiful cathedral, with a slightly claustrophobic feel: many small rooms, narrow hallways and a scary winding staircase. Anyone much bigger than I am would have trouble climbing those stairs.

We wandered around Red Square and enjoyed some ice cream we bought from a vendor before heading toward the Kremlin. At the box office we encountered yet another disgruntled employee. Once we’d settled on the access we wanted (depending on what you want to see, Kremlin tickets range dramatically in price), Alex led us inside to the ticket window and handed his money to the woman behind the counter. Like St. Basil’s, the Kremlin offered a native discount (100 rubles), but this woman started arguing with Alex in an attempt to make him pay full price (500 rubles). This turned into an intense shouting match, and neither one appeared willing to give in as we all stood around the tiny, uncomfortably warm office. Finally, this most unhappy employee angrily gave Alex his ticket and turned to me. I handed her 1000 rubles and she went crazy. I looked helplessly to Alex who again started yelling. Apparently, she was now unwilling to make change for us. Having no smaller bills, I paid for Lisa’s ticket in an attempt to avoid this confrontation. But behind me, Chris only had a 1000-ruble bill for his admission. As Alex and the woman screamed at each other, Chris, Lisa and I scraped together 500 rubles for our fourth ticket.

We exited the hot ticket office and walked to the entrance gates, where Lisa was promptly told she couldn’t enter. The guards wouldn’t allow her camera bag inside, which doubled as her backpack and purse. As Alex took up our cause, we saw several other people enter the premises with similar bags. Once this was pointed out, we were allowed to go behind the Kremlin walls.

The Kremlin grounds are comprised of several buildings and five churches built over the span of many years. The architecture ranges from gothic to modern. In the courtyard sits the Tsar’s Cannon, supposedly the largest operable cannon in the world (although it has never been fired). The cannon balls each weighed over a ton. Also on view is the Tsar’s Bell, a frighteningly huge bell that sits on the ground in front of a bell tower. Cracked during its cooling phase, it has never been rung.

The Kremlin churches are old and amazing, and many house the coffins of historic Russians. However, our interest in religious shrines was slipping fast having already touring Christ the Savior and St. Basil’s. By the fifth Kremlin church, we’d seen enough Jesus in a week to last a lifetime.

For lunch, we swung around the square to the Dog for a dose of food, pevo and email. As we were preparing to leave, our waiter Vlad brought out a complimentary t-shirt for Alex. The fountains in front of the Dog were crowded with kids swimming, including a few guys crazy enough to dive from the roof of the mall. As Alex went to take a picture, he overheard a girl say, “Look that that American taking a picture so he can show his friends how crazy Russians are.”

Lisa had her heart set on seeing the famous Moscow Cat Circus. So we headed to a ticket office to check availability. The woman was pleasantly surprised that four adults were interested in the child-oriented show, but she had bad news for us. The cats only perform on weekends. I guess we’ll have to come back next year. Alex tried to talk us into attending the Bolshoi instead, but no one was too enthusiastic so we walked away empty handed.

More disappointment was soon to follow, as Chris, our resident Cold War fanatic, suggested we visit the Lubianka museum. No dice. Apparently special advanced permission was required to tour the KGB headquarters. Had we consulted our trusty Moscow tourist guide, we’d have already known this. There sure were a lot of suspicious-looking men in suits hanging out around the building. Spies are cool!

Instead of the Lubianka, we wandered through the Krestoveymost (Christ Bridge) area. There were plenty of interesting shops and street vendors, but by this time in the afternoon, the temperature had become uncomfortably warm. So we found a nearby Metro station and went in search of the Beast, which sat waiting for us patiently.

After a quick rest and a few beers (Chris hit the vodka pretty hard) at the apartment, the four of us got cleaned up and headed to dinner via Metro at a Georgian pectopah in Old Arbat called Genatzvali (a term for respect in Georgian). The interior was designed to look like catacombs, with lots of wood and stone. The dining room was divided into several private areas with a few tables each, while water flowed through the restaurant in “streams.” There was even a glass floor through which you could see fish swimming. Our waiter, who spoke good English, was the first flamingly gay person we’d seen in Moscow and boy did he like Alex! As the rest of us indulged in pevo, Chris was fading fast after his vodka binge at the apartment. To rectify this, he consumed two cappuccinos and a Coke. Frightening. The food was incredible: Lisa had a vegetable and cheese casserole, Chris had baked trout, I had a lamb wrap (the Georgian equivalent of a fajita) and Alex ate his weight in giant dumplings. We also shared an amazing cheese bread that looked like a pizza with no sauce. It was the most expensive part of our meal and worth every ruble.

Our next stop was an Arbat music store where Alex and I purchased a couple Russian CDs to remember the trip. To walk off our meal, we took a long stroll to Red Square and decided to swing by the Dog. Before we’d finished our first drinks, our Norwegian friend Pal showed up to join in the evening’s festivities. The pevo started to flow and before long, we decided to try to find a more exciting club. Pal, who was quite knowledgeable in this area, found a local English-language paper (the Exile) and scanned through their list of bar reviews. We settled on Propaganda, which was not to far from our current location, and set off on foot.

We walked for what seemed hours. Apparently Pal had been rip-roaring drunk that last time he’d been to Propaganda. He and Alex led us up and down streets and through underground tunnels. Eventually Alex asked directions from a solider, who pointed us the right way. The route took us past a lovely line-up of prostitutes standing on the sidewalk as a pimp pointed them out to the driver of an idling car. It was like Whores-R-Us. From there, we walked through a dark, junkie-infested park. I think it was safe to say we were no longer on the nice side of town. The park scared Chris out of his wits. In fact, he’s probably still quaking. Emerging from the park, we saw the club ahead.

As we entered the front door, we were told firmly, “No dancing.” I guess we didn’t look too coordinated, although I suspect it was a cryptic message for Pal, who had only foggy recollections from his last visit. Propaganda was deserted, but that didn’t deter us from hanging out until 2:30, drinking and swapping stories. Pal told us about a market that specialized in pirated music and software (we never got there) and gave us tips for getting through customs. He also entertained us by attempting to piece together the night that included his last visit to Propaganda (this included vague memories of a casino and waking up with hundreds of dollars worth of groceries in his hotel room).

The night ended with a taxi ride (we paid $6 for what would have been a $20 fare in Houston) back to the apartment. During our trip, we saw yet another dead guy -- I don’t know if Chris and Lisa had believed us before -- in the road. Alex questioned our driver about this strange phenomenon. He explained that cars frequently hit drunks and homeless people when they wander into the road at night. After experiencing Moscow traffic firsthand, this didn’t surprise me at all.

 

13 May 2003, Tuesday

Tuesday began with our ritualistic refilling of the Beast’s flat tire, followed by a drive to Ismailovo, yet another outdoor tourist-oriented shopping area. As was common with most of our shopping trips, many items were purchased.

Traffic was the worst yet. We planned to head to Gorky Park with a stop at neighboring statue park, but after two hours in the car everyone was in a foul mood. We stopped off at an Italian café to have lunch. One of the native dishes I hadn’t yet tried in Russia was borsch, so when I saw it on the menu I promptly ordered it. The beet soup, served warm with sour cream, was incredible. Lisa wanted to try some, but it wasn’t vegetarian (but don’t fret, we would find some later). After soup and many plates of pasta, we were ready to tackle Moscow traffic once again.

Eventually, we made it to Statue Park, where we were charged 10 rubles each to enter. Alex argued with the attendant -- apparently if we’d entered the park from another street, it was free -- to no avail. Alex liked to argue. From there we went to Gorky Park, which we were pretty excited about. That excitement faded fast. The place is a disappointing amusement park, filled with poor quality carnival rides. And to top it off, it was unbelievably expensive. Beyond an entrance fee of a few dollars, each ride cost about $6. Most of the rides appeared closed, but this was not the case. They were just so overpriced that no one wanted to ride them. Obviously, Russians are still learning about capitalism.

By this time, the four of us were starting to wind down. We’d spent the entire day either outdoors or trapped in the A/C-free Beast. The decision was made to spend the evening in the apartment and cook ourselves dinner. But before this could happen, we had to get home and the Beast too was starting to fade. Our not-so-trustworthy automobile was near death. Only through Alex’s liberal use of the choke was it running at all, and we were beginning to fear the car wouldn’t make it home. I’m pretty sure the Vaz suffered from a major design flaw: it was clearly not meant to be driven. When we neared a Metro stop and saw a parking space, the choice was clear. The Beast would spend the night on the street, while we took the train home.

As we exited the Metro station, we stopped by a supermarket to pick up dinner -- pelmeni, a Greek salad and pevo. Alex wouldn’t let us buy the vegetables in the store, as he preferred the outdoor produce market. The only problem was, we could find no onions there, and Alex said it best, “A Greek salad without onions is suck.” He was now a man obsessed with finding onions. We stopped at every vegetable stand and market along the route home but were denied at every turn. We never found an onion that day, but the tale has a happy ending. The Greek salad tasted just fine without it.

Our dinner behind us, we proceeded to lounge around the living room, watching football, swapping stories and drinking vodka and pevo. It was during this extremely silly evening that we set about taking our definitive Moscow group portrait. We each took turns setting the timers on our cameras while we posed in our ushankas.

 

14 May 2003, Wednesday

We woke up for what would be our final day in Moscow. As we ate breakfast, Alex called Oksana and Volody to see if they wanted to come into town to meet for lunch. We’d all agreed to treat them in a feeble attempt to return their generous hospitality. It was decided they’d drive into the city and meet us in front of the Casino Arbat.

For our last day in Russia, we decided to do three things: gamble at the casino, have lunch with Alex’s relatives and spend the afternoon visiting a few museums we’d neglected to this point. But our first goal of the day was to locate the Beast, return it and get our 9000-ruble deposit back. Under the leadership of Aleksey, we managed to retrace our steps via bus and Metro to the stop where we’d abandoned the Vaz the afternoon before. There it was, in all it’s maroon glory. We hopped in, crossed our fingers and hoped the piece of crap would make it back to the rental shop.

After the Beast limped into the parking lot, Alex and I went in to retrieve our deposit. As I sat counting our rubles, I noticed Alex in an exchange with the clerk that ended with him handing her money. It turns out, they charged us because we failed to wash the car and Alex didn’t want me to know… the thing was a filthy mess when we drove it off the lot. And on top of that, I know they siphoned off the half-tank of gas that remained in the Beast. I never plan to rent another car in Moscow.

From there, we were off to the Casino Arbat for a pre-lunch gambling adventure. Alex had never gambled (at least this is what he claimed). The casino had an entrance fee, which amounted to them giving you chips that were nonrefundable. Women didn’t have to buy as many chips as men. Sexist bastards. We wandered around the place for a bit before settling in at a blackjack table for a couple hours. The end result: Lisa and I finished even-Steven, Alex lost about $80 and Chris won $60.

We exchanged our chips for dollars and rubles and went to meet Oksana and Volody at the casino entrance. We settled on an Uzbek pectopah across the street. No sooner had we sat down, there was a bottle of Flagman vodka on our table. Instead of the standard dill pickles, this restaurant served a variety platter of pickled vegetables alongside the vodka. Needless to say, the vodka went down easily again, and we polished off two bottles over lunch. Our meal was wonderful. The place even had vegetarian borsch, so Lisa was able to enjoy a bowl of authentic Russian beet soup.

As if Oksana and Volody hadn’t been the perfect hosts during our trip, they outdid themselves on this day. They brought along photo albums for each of us, with a few pictures from our Zelenograd trip. (Once we returned to the States, we bought them a digital camera… but I still feel indebted to them.)

At this point, the four of us realized that our museum trip would never happen. The vodka had insured this. We left the pectopah and strolled down New Arbat to the Shamrock Pub, where Alex and I had been a week before. Here we sat, drinking Guinness and Kilkenny for hours (Volody had never drank Guinness before). When Alex was ordering, one of the waitresses became angry with him. Apparently, she’d overheard him speaking Russian and took offense when he spoke English to him. This infuriated Alex, as this was a bar that catered to British patrons and he felt that it was none of her business what language he ordered in.

With the afternoon quickly passing, we headed out to wander one last time through Old Arbat. Oksana and Volody said their farewells and left us in tourist heaven. Lisa ended up buying some local artwork before we drunkenly decided to take a final swing by the Phlegmatic Dog. Things quickly went from bad to worse. Alex and I started in on the vodka shots with our bartender Julia, Lisa commenced emailing and Chris disappeared. Julia presented Alex and I with T-shirts from the bar, and we tried our best to convince her to come to the States. My last photo in Moscow pretty much explains how drunk we were.

Eventually, we realized it was getting late and we had to catch a cab at 5:00 in the morning. Lisa, Alex and I headed into Red Square to track down Chris (although we were tempted to leave him) and found him sitting near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He later claimed that wandering drunkenly around Red Square was one of the highlights of his trip.

We caught a cab and arrived at our apartment about midnight. The four of us frantically packed our suitcases. An aside to travelers: when packing drunk, you should expect many personal belongings to end up in other people’s bags. And don’t be surprised when you discover your friends’ items in your luggage when you unpack later.

 

15 May 2003, Thursday

With packing behind us, Lisa announced that she could still get four hours of sleep in and she promptly crawled off to her room. However, Chris, Alex and I had passed the point of no return. We grabbed the last bottle of vodka, the last few pevo in the fridge and a bottle of Coke and headed outside. In the courtyard behind the building, we spent the next several hours drinking and recounting our many silly adventures. Alex also entertained us with stories of his Moscow youth, while we polished off our stash of alcohol.

About 4:00 in the morning, we wandered back into the apartment to clean up and get ready for our flights back home. Lisa awoke and about 5:00, we headed downstairs to wait for our cab. And we waited. And waited. It was a good thing I was drunk, because the anxiety would have killed me. Instead, I became pseudo-comatose until the cab arrived.

It was about 6:00 when we were dropped off at the international terminal of the Moscow airport. Alex and I flew out at 7:00 with Lisa and Chris following a couple hours later. We said our goodbyes, and Alex and I headed to our gate. After a swing by the duty free shop, where we bought some vodka and bottled water, we managed to board our plane.

The flight to Frankfurt was over fast, thanks to some much needed sleep. At the Frankfurt airport, we were forced to go through extra security (there had been some attacks on overseas American interests while we were on vacation, and all U.S.-bound passengers were funneled into a special security check. Having your shoes X-rayed while you are half-drunk and half-asleep is not very fun. And Alex had his fingernail clippers impounded. (It’s a little known fact that fingernail clippers are one of the most commonly used weapons in the terrorist community.)

The flight back to Houston was uneventful. I slept through both in-flight movies and only awoke for the meals. Jennifer met us outside the terminal and sped us to our homes. Thanks to my Russian adventure, never before had I appreciated Houston traffic.


© 2003 by Marc Eckhardt. All rights reserved.