MY FIRST RUSSIAN EXPERIENCE
Flew from Toronto to Frankfurt Air Canada, then Luthansia to Moscow. It's a long overnight flight and I don't sleep on airplanes. Very tired when I arrived at Moscow airport.
The drive from the airport to the Russia Hotel was difficult for the driver but he expertly negotiated the crazy weekend traffic. Seems that the whole of Moscow was trying to leave town.
I was efficiently checked into the hotel and my room although I felt a little uncomfortable having to leave my passport with reception. Who was it that said "A man without a passport is a man without a country"?. Alexander, the wonderful Ceso representative in Moscow, calmed my fears and assured me that it would be returned to me eventually.
My room was somewhat shabby but clean and warm. Beds were very narrow and almost on the ground. Wallpaper from the 30s. Old fashioned telephone (never did figure out how to work it). Towels were odd sizes but very clean. Old domestic fridge that groaned and rattled everytime it came on and off. Still I was thankful to be able to finally lay down and get some sleep.
I woke and it was still dark outside by my watch said 7.30 a.m., and my stomach said it was breakfast time. I showered and dressed and went in search of nourishment.
There is a restaurant at one corner of each floor of the hotel Russia (after all it does have 5000 rooms and is in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest hotel in the world.) However Alexander had suggested that I go to the restaurant on the 21st floor as it has a wonderful view overlooking Red Square and the Kremlin.
I set off in search of the 21st floor but the elevator only seemed to go to the 12th floor. I found the corner restaurant on the 12 floor and saw people sitting around drinking beer. How strange I thought, fancy beer for breakfast.
I asked about he rooftop restaurant and was told it was closed. Kaput. As I could not read the menu or get a sense of what was available I thought I would go down to the lobby. It was deserted and the doorman gave me a very strange look. When I finally found someone who spoke English they explained to me that I had to go to the 2nd floor, walk half way around the block long building to another lobby, where I would then be able to take the elevator to the 21st floor. I finally arrived at the rooftop restaurant and sure enough it was closed, although there was quite a bit of activity behind the closed curtains. The view was wonderful although it was still dark.
As I was definitely feeling hunger pangs by this time I returned to the corner of the 6th floor,where my room was located and ordered eggs and ham. Two fried eggs on a small plate, nicely garnished, a second small plate with three slices of cold ham and three slices of cheese and two thick slices of brown bread. Hot coffee, tasting of chicory and two bottles of local bottled water. Price $6.00 US. There was a great display of fruit and large ripe tomatoes and there seemed to be no shortage of other things. Page 2
As I was eating, overlooking Red Square, I pondered the fact that it was still dark and there was very little street activity. A clock on the wall appeared to be stopped at 2.30 a.m. My watch said otherwise. Finally I asked the waitress the time and she looked at the clock and said 2.30 a.m. In my jet-lagged state I had read my watch upside down!
Back to bed and sleept for another six hours. On reawakening I again showered (plenty of hot water) and feeling much more human, found the rooftop restaurant which indeed did, in the light of day, have a wonderful view for miles around.
Second breakfast, fixed menu. A plate of cold ham and cheese, nicely garnished with fresh tomatoes. Bread, both white and brown and a glass on orange juice. I had just about finished eating all of this when a plate appeared with a wonderful light, fluffy omelet on it. It was delicious and although I was not very hungry after eating all of the ham and cheese, I really enjoyed it. Price $4.00 US. Excellent value.
10.a.m. met by Olga, Alexanders' charming and English-speaking assistant, for a walking tour of the red-walled Kremlin, Red Square with the tomb of Lenin and wonderful old St Basils. Whenever I think of Moscow, I think of this wonderful old building with it coloured onion domes and fancy brick-work. Inside it's a catacombe with little alcoves, minute rooms and tiny winding staircases. Its also a treasure-trove of icons and other artworks. When people talked of the Kremlin I imagined in my mind a large building, perhaps something like the USA Whitehouse, but old. It is in fact a city within a city with many buildings and five very old and very different churches.
Our last stop was was a renovation of the old Gumm store, now a huge shopping mall, rather like the Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto. . There are three parallel streets and a balcony running round the perameter with bridges crossing from side to side at intervals. There were numerous small stores, all major multi-nationals. All the main cosmetic houses and all of the trendy clothing stores were there. In front of the stores were gaily coloured carts stuffed with traditional Russian crafts. No one seemed to be buying anything.
Went to a second mall in search of a bank to exchange some money. Found an ATM machine (IBM blazoned on the side) but a sign stuck over the keys said it was closed until further notice. The mall was fairly busy, lots of families walking around. The games arcade was seeing a little action but otherwise people were just looking. The fast food court was sparsely populated. We stopped here for a cup of coffee and a cake.
Walked back to the hotel through underground passageways where little shops sold knock-off goods, cosmetics, perfume, electronics and where drab tired people tried to sell cheap socks and other mundane goods, out of tattered cardboard boxes and worn shopping bags.
Alexander has offered me the option of flying to Izechev (3 hours) or taking the first class train (20 hours) I opted for the train in the hope that I would see some of the countryside and at the same time get over any jetlag.
My only concern on the train would be that the person in the second berth would be a problem in some way. As it turned out I was alone in the berth which was great as it enabled me to stretch out a bit.
The train was very clean and everything was in excellent condition. There were even live plants hanging in the windows of the corridor. As soon as the train left the station at 5.30 p.m., the carriage maid vacuumed the rugs. Soon after she came around with a boxed meal. Breakfast or Dinner? I was not sure. A large bread bun, tightly wrapped in saran wrap, cheese, a small tin of pate, two chocolate biscuits and a small chocolate bar. The little table in the berth was set with an embroidered linen cloth, china cups and saucers and a teapot. The maid brought hot water and a tea bag and kept returning asking if I wanted more. Milk and sugar were absent though.
I watched the city roll by and the vistor's change to barren, flat countryside until it got dark. Then it was off to the restaurant car, which was full of drinkers, well into their second bottle of Vodka. Not much food seemed to be around and I could not find anyone who could speak English so I chose not to join the party. Back to my berth where a sealed plastic bag containing pretty flowered sheets and pillowcases, two towels, a small tablet of soap and a package of handywipes. had been left by the maid. Made my bed and after a short trip down the corridor to a clean but rather smelly bathroom, went to sleep.
In the morning the maid knocked on the door offering hot water and took away the dirty teacups and washed them. Ate my breakfast watching the flat, dreary landscape fly by.
The train stopped a number of times and sometimes old ladies with pails of potatoes or apples tried to get the attention of the riders in the train. Sadly they did not seem to do much business and I watched them slowly walk off the platform, scarf covered heads bowed in defeat.
Around noon I tried another visit to the restaurant car. The staff were busy adding up their bills from the previous night and counting their bottles of champagne and vodka, which were, with great ingenuity, stowed in the dining room seats. Not the safest place though, as the previous evening I had seen a row of people suddenly, on some strange command, stand up, then sit down again. It occurred to me now that they were raiding the lockers when the waiters were not looking. On the other hand, this being Russia, it may have been with the waiters approval and the exchange of a little graft.
Stood in the corridor for a while as my berth was getting very hot, when a middle aged Russia woman, speaking perfect English, approached me. She was an Engineer, travelling to Izchev for a conference. She gave me her card and offered to show me around Moscow on my return. Her comment on the political situation "The country will never be straightened out until women rule the Kremlin." Her comment on US politics "Mr Clinton should get on with the job of running the country" Who cares about his personal life. Smart lady!
20 hours later, on the dot, I finally arrived, to be greeted by the director from the University. Nice new car, a Saab, owned by the faculty. Young driver, fast but safe.
Hotel definitely not a five star but clean and warm. Narrow room with a tiny, very low bed, small night table, new TV on a wooden stand, large domestic fridge. A small table and chair and a wooden armed lounge chaira completed the furnishings. For some inexplicable reason a piece of carpet is nailed to the wall along the side of the bed. No dresser, no drawers but a deep window sill which will store my sweaters and other stuff. Rough wooden closet and two coathangers. Bathroom from the dark ages but clean and there is plenty of hot water. I later discover that there is a central hot water system for the whole city and that in the summer months it does not operate very well so they only get hot water in the winter.
We go out for dinner. Selected restaurant turns out to be closed as were most of the other restaurants in town. Finally find one open. Nice and clean, self service with Russian style salads, good soup and some fancy cakes. We have just sat down when we are informed that the restaurant is closing for an hour. No one can explain why. That's just the way it is in Russia I am told. I am to hear this resigned statement many times during my visit. There is considerable apathy to change.
Some discussion over dinner about the program for the next four weeks. Nothing solid is established. I want to talk about it some more. They want to talk about Canada. They win.
Picked up the next morning and taken to the University cafeteria for breakfast. Cold hard boiled eggs with mayo. Then hot beet, carrot. and fried onion salad. Dark bread and tea without milk. Very tasty but definitely not what I usually have for breakfast.
Walk over muddy paths to another building. The University, with over 1000 students, is scattered through six old buildings. Meet the dean, nice lady who does not speak much English. Meet teachers of English, all very young, probably last years students. Everyone very well dressed, even the students. No jeans or sneakers here. Hope I brought enough of the right clothes. Its hot in the building, too hot for the sweaters I brought and t shirts won't cut it.
Classroom is jammed full. Students three to a two person bench. Classes are to be in English without an interpreter. Many are first year students with only two months of English. This is definitely going to be a challenge.
The class is supposed to be a mixture of tourism, hotel management and public relations students. I discover that these are new programs for the school so no one really knows much about anything. After some probing it seems that only two (male) students are interested in a career in the hotel field. About 10 are interested in Public Relations and the rest of them really don't know but think that tourism is a good idea.
Further probing reveals that what the university calls Public Relations is really advertising. Good, I decide that we will start off with advertising in the travel and tourism areas. This way I can get a lot of stuff I had planned, such as packaging of hotels and other services for tour operators, into the program.
Prior to departure I had emailed a draft program which has been approved by the University. Two weeks working with the students, two weeks working with local hoteliers. Two one hour lectures in the morning, one in the afternoon. I had all my materials, both print and video for the planned program. Thank goodness for my trusty Toshiba, with it I will have just about everything I will need for all the changes which take place daily.
Monday morning goes off fine. The students are very bright but there is a problem of comprehending the English language with some of them. Students receive a small salary while at University. Having a part-time job and studying at the same time is unheard of.
Lunch every day is to be taken in the Cafeteria. Big lunch. Salad Russian style (no greens), cabbage soup, steak and mashed potatoes. Bread and bun, tea without milk.
Monday afternoon I am taken shopping. Why is it that Russians are obsessed with shopping? I am told that the stores are full of goods right now because no-one has any money. Before the latest crisis goods would fly off the shelves and the stores never could get enough supplies. To my western eye the shelves are still sparsely filled.
We try to but a decent sized towel. Hotel supplies are handkerchief sized and it did not occur to me to bring a towel. Choice is strictly limited between Chinese made, thin as tissue paper with lots of weaving flaws, but cheap and Italian made, very fancy, three to box, outragiously expensive (over $100.00). Did Russians really buy this stuff before the crisis? apparently so.
The faculty bought me a bouquet of roses. They were a bit ashamed about the lowly state of my hotel room although I assured them that I was quite satisfied as it was warm and clean. and close to the university. Bought a vase for the flowers. $2.00. Could have bought Italian crystal but elected for the cheap and cheerful route.
Dinner at the cafeteria. Not very welcome as they were about to close. Carrot, cheese and shredded cabbage salad. Hamburger loaf and mashed potatoes. Bread and coffee.
Back to the hotel to revise my program. Page 6
Tuesday. Class in a different building. Some students never find it. Some new from yesterday and have a hard time following the lecture. Must learn to speak more slowly.
Had planned to go out and buy a kettle and a mirror. Both items supplied by faculty who are very nice and really trying to please.
Afternoon meeting with the Minister of Tourism. Quite young. very charming and enthusiastic. Short meeting, about half an hour as he has some guests from Holland. Wants to have a full afternoon to discuss tourism, a new hotel (financed by U.S. or Canada?) He mentions bear hunting and a Tchaikovsky Festival, the very two items the class selected as suitable for tourists.
Next a meeting with a tour operator. "Interservice" He has in fact started to prepare some promotional materials for bear hunting and for the Festival. He has a few tourist clients already. Some US some Dutch and German.
My Universikty lecture program changes by the minute. The current reality is three 45 minute lectures, back to back, with 15 minute breaks inbetween, all to take place in the mornings.
For the evening I invite Julie, one of my five interpreters, to stay and have dinner with me in the hotel. Food very good and very reasonable. Salads, meat and potato and ice cream, a glass of white wine each, total $10.00 including tip for rather surprised but grateful waitress. Live entertainment consisting of singer with tapes. He also plays the sax and horn at times. Good oldie type music, some Russian some international. After dinner we work on an application for her to receive a one years scholarship in Public Relations in the USA.
Wednesday. Drive to Cafeteria for breakfast. Sliced tomatoes covered in grated cheese, followed by pieces of steak in some cooked cabbage topped with two fried eggs. Cranberry juice, coffee. I guess I will get used to it in time.
Met by Julie who escorts me to a different building. Room on the third floor a huge auditorium with banked seats. Not so many students only 18 but most of them were the active participants of the previous days. Told them of the visit with the Minister. They set to planning an ad for a sports magazine in Germany. All the copy is selected and their homework is to lay it out. Hopefully we can get students in the graphics department to do professional layouts so that I can show their ads to the Minister.
Offered to meet with students in small groups to have English conversation. They are very enthusiastic and we set groups of three for each night next week. Two of the young teachers invite me out for Sunday afternoon. A trip outside of town is planned for Saturday.
Lunch in Cafeteria. Far too much. Salad (no greens) soup (barley with sour cream, pork on a stick and mashed potatoes. Pancakes, very thin, with butter. coffee. Drive to theatre to get tickets for a live jazz piano performance for Saturday night. Page 7
Drive to market. I must get a decent sized towel. Find quite a nice one, white with a big flower in the centre. Not bad quality.