By Darrin Silver
Baltika is a popular Russian beer and comes in various strengths numbered one to nine. Baltika three is the most common and even the hardcore Russians don’t go near number nine.
Sadly, Marina was only with us briefly to help us get our baggage and pass through customs. And pass through we did. There were no hang-ups, no searched bags, no questions about anything. We didn’t ask how she managed that. Marina handed us off to Galina, who would be our primary point of contact during our stay in Russia. Galina guided us to a side exit, explaining the main exit was blocked due to a security incident (three American guys who just snuck through customs maybe???). We were promptly herded into a green minivan and whisked away to the Swiss Diamond/Golden Ring Hotel.
The hotel was oozing with five-star elegance. They prided themselves on their state-of-the art security system. The room key-cards had to be inserted into a slot in the elevator to go up to any floor beyond the second, which was home to the restaurants and lounges. Apparently I didn’t pay enough attention during the briefing at the check-in counter because it took a good fifteen minutes before I figured out how to turn the lights on in my room. There was another slot just inside the room door. When the card was placed in this slot, the lights were activated and no one could enter from the hallway. It also provided a convenient place to store the key so as not to forget it when walking out the door.
The business suite was beautifully decorated in peach wallpaper and dark wood furniture. I flung open the curtains of the two bay windows and was taken aback at the view. Just across the street was the ominous Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Even from the tenth floor of the Golden Ring, the building loomed far above my gaze. The old hammer and sickle emblem, a reminder of the days of the Soviet Union, stared down at me. In the distance was the gleaming gold dome of a cathedral. I would later learn it was the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, right next to the Kremlin.
Michael and Bob were going to take a walk around town. I declined as I was awaiting a call from Julia. Today was my birthday and we had made plans to celebrate over dinner. While waiting I was perusing a Moscow map when there was a knock at my door. A maid greeted me bearing a vase of flowers, some chocolates, and a card wishing me a happy birthday from the hotel staff! Apparently Bob and Michael had mentioned it to the front desk.
A couple of hours passed and I had not heard from Julia. Bob and Michael returned and suggested we all go out to dinner. Michael had done research on a place within walking distance that sounded good. The name was something like Yolki Palki. There was a line to get in so we figured it must be good. We were finally seated and confident that Michael had enough command of the language to order for us. We were out of the tourist area and the waitress didn’t speak a lick of English. The ordering process quickly degenerated into a tangled mess of stammering, some quizzical looks, and pointing at the menu. We came out of it with three beers, the salad bar and an appetizer consisting of salmon and pancakes. Bob tried to finagle a slice of birthday cake for me, but the waitress did not understand. He even broke into a verse of “Happy Birthday to You” hoping the tune might be known internationally and clue her in. She was obviously amused at the antics of these three crazy Americans, but alas, no birthday cake.
It was still early so Michael and I decided to find a local bar and have a drink. Bob opted to go back to the hotel, get some writing done, and go to bed early. Michael and I headed off down Arbat Street. We found a bar with a lot of music emanating from it and figured it was as good as any. Shortly after finding a table, a waitress came to take our order. I now know how to order two beers, but at the time we accomplished the task by pointing to the taps. Baltika is a popular Russian beer and comes in various strengths numbered one to nine. Baltika three is the most common and even the hardcore Russians don’t go near number nine. The band was perched up on scaffolding above the floor and played a medley of good old American rock ‘n’ roll.
Upon arrival back at my hotel room there was a blinking light on the telephone indicating that I had a voicemail. It was Julia explaining that some urgent, unexpected things popped up at work and she would call me later that night. It was already after 11 p.m. so I decided to get ready for bed and we would be in touch the next day. Well, true to her word, the phone rang at the stroke of midnight. We talked for about half an hour and made plans for the next evening. The next day’s schedule called for a whirlwind tour of the Moscow vicinity. I estimated we should be done around three or four o’clock in the afternoon and Julia could try calling my hotel room around that time.
If I closed my eyes it could have easily been Natasha saying, “dah-ling!” as she and Boris Baddenov plotted the downfall of moose and squirrel.
At seven o’clock the next morning Bob, Michael and myself met on the second floor for the included breakfast buffet. This hotel’s five star rating was apparent in the multitude of muffins, fruit, pancakes, juices, cereals, and omelets cooked to order which greeted us in the elegantly decorated dining room. We would have a full day ahead of us so we loaded up our plates, found a table and enjoyed the live harp music as we finished our breakfast.
A quick trip up to our rooms to grab our backpacks, and we headed down to the lobby to meet our tour guide Marina. This was not the same Marina who greeted us at the airport. She was an older woman, dressed in a full-length fur overcoat and a bright red hat. She spoke English fluently but with an accent that came right out of a Rocky and Bullwinkle episode. If I closed my eyes it could have easily been Natasha saying, “dah-ling!” as she and Boris Baddenov plotted the downfall of Moose and Squirrel. We hopped into our minivan and began our excursion.
First stop: the flea market at Ismailova. This was a huge market place with vendors selling everything from 500-year-old rugs to pirated software. None of us were huge shoppers and we found this more amusing than anything else. Marina began to get a bit frustrated because we were not buying anything. It was quite obvious that she was getting kickbacks from some of the vendors. There were countless booths selling beautifully painted wooden boxes, yet she would lead us straight to a particular one where everyone there knew her name and told us what a “good deal” these were. Bob commented to me privately that we were probably not the typical clients. Most people who shelled out over $14,000 for one of these trips would certainly not think twice about spending a few hundred more at the flea market. As a last resort to get us to spend some money, Marina reached into her handbag and pulled out a bottle of vodka and three Dixie cups. Get the Americans drunk and then maybe they will part with their cash! Bob and Michael bought some small gifts for their wives and Michael also picked up some souvenirs for his children. I got a titanium watch for my Dad that was supposedly a special edition made for the MiG-29 pilots. We all agreed that it was probably time to take in some more sights.
Imagine trying to see all the major tourist attractions in Moscow in just a few hours and you will have an idea of what the remainder of our day was like. Marina was bombarding us with history and facts about everything we saw. It was all very interesting but spilled out of my head within minutes. Bolshoy theatre: stop and take a picture. Some cathedral that was a million years old: stop and take a picture. Moscow University: stop and take a picture. Another cathedral. An old convent. Another cathedral. We got a little break while we toured the Kremlin. The Kremlin contained many historic government buildings and, of course, more cathedrals. We went inside one of these cathedrals and I was amazed at the ornate architecture and the artistry that adorned the walls and ceiling. Hundreds of icons depicted stories from the Bible. We even saw the old “box seat” where Ivan the Terrible sat on Sunday mornings. As we were leaving, a motorcade of black trucks and limousines raced through the Kremlin and stopped in front of a government building. Guards kept the curious onlookers from getting to close. We inquired and learned that it was Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.
Back into the minivan and time for lunch. On our way we passed, you guessed it, some more cathedrals. We were taken to a restaurant serving Georgian style food. As we sat down the owner seemed rather upset about something and was hollering at us in Russian. Marina hollered back at him and then told us that he was insisting that we check our coats. Bob, Michael and I were more than willing to hand over our jackets if it would help avoid an altercation. The last thing we wanted to do was start a fight. Marina assured us that she had smoothed things over. The food was very good although there was way too much of it. However, we dared not refuse any of it for fear that the owner would be insulted and throw another fit. It was around 3:00 p.m. when we sat down to eat and I knew I would be later getting back to the hotel. Not to worry, Julia understood that our plans were flexible. After finishing our meal we were shuttled back to our hotel. We thanked Marina for her tour of the city and headed up to our rooms.
I got to my room and saw the blinking voicemail light. As expected, it was Julia. She had called around 4:00 p.m .and said that she would meet me in the lobby of the hotel at 5:00 p.m. I looked at my watch, ten after! I dashed down the hall to the elevator and did a cartoon skid-around-the-corner-on-one-foot into the lobby. She wasn’t there. She would not just leave so I figured she must be running late. I told the person behind the desk that if they saw a young woman who appeared to be waiting for someone, tell her I would be down in a minute. Back up to my room to change, brush my hair and teeth, splash on some cologne and basically make myself presentable. First impressions are everything! I sat down in the lobby and thumbed through a magazine. It was in Russian so I just looked at the pictures. Shortly thereafter Julia arrived. She was an attractive girl about 5’4” with flowing reddish-brown hair and blue eyes. Since the previous day had been my birthday she brought me some gifts: a beautiful hand-painted wooden egg and a small hand-painted bowl. We made a quick stop at my room to drop off the gifts and grab my jacket.
Since I had eaten a late lunch I was not in the mood for a big dinner. We decided to go for a walk to Red Square and maybe grab a light snack later. Off we went down Arbat Street. This was a pedestrian mall with many shops, street vendors, bars, and restaurants lining several blocks. Along the way, street performers drew large crowds with their musical performances and comedy acts. Julia and I strolled along playing question and answer in the usual meet-and-greet ritual of a new friendship.
We walked next to the Kremlin wall and as we rounded a corner and entered Red Square my eyes were met by the massive white stonewalls of the huge building housing GUM’s department store. My gaze was led to Saint Basil’s Cathedral with its wildly ornate spires that have graced many a postcard. I wandered around, eyes glazed and camera in hand, for several minutes before it really sunk in that I was in the middle of Red Square. I’d seen Red Square earlier from the minivan as we’d hurriedly driven past it. But now it hit me: There was so much history surrounding us. To the right was Lenin’s tomb. It was closed so I did not get to see his preserved body. Red Square itself was bustling with both tourists and locals strolling along the expansive brick and cobblestone. Not long ago this was the heart of the Soviet Union, America’s sworn enemy, and here I was standing right in the middle of it. Julia treated me to an ice cream bar from a pushcart vendor. We sat on the steps of an old building and finished our ice cream as the sun began to set, glistening off the majestic domes of Saint Basil’s.
There was a pizza joint just down the street from the hotel so Julia and I decided to grab something more to eat. The host rattled off something in Russian and Julia interpreted for me. He was asking if we wanted to eat in the pizzeria downstairs or the sushi bar upstairs. Apparently it was joint venture. The tone in Julia's voice seemed to indicate she was interested in the sushi. Sushi is not my favorite dish, but I obliged. Thinking back, this was not one of my wiser decisions. I was about to eat raw fish in a city that is quite far from any seafood-bearing bodies of water. It turns out Julia was not a fan of sushi either, but thought it might be a favorite of a Californian. We laughed upon realizing that eagerness to please and the slight communication gap left us dining on raw fish when we both would have preferred a pepperoni pizza. I nearly fell off my chair when I saw the bill. But promptly regained my composure as I realized the amount was in rubles. The exchange rate was about twenty-nine rubles to the dollar. We made plans to get together the next evening and said goodnight. I wanted to be well rested for the first of our jet flights the next day. PART III