Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Postcard from Moscow

Imagine an archetypal day in Moscow. (Ok, those of you who have actually been to Moscow need to recuse yourselves).

At least in our American imaginations, it might look something like this: Gray and misty. Crowds of people pushed and prodded, worn down from years of toil, weather, and totalitarian rule. Tall, colorless Soviet-bloc architecture as far as the eye can see, old sheets and trousers swaying from laundry lines strung from all those identical windows.

Now. Turn those assumptions on their head. Sure, Moscow had its moments of gray. And true enough, the air can get a bit clogged with smoke and vehicle exhaust. Cars rule the streets here, and city officials are considering 10-lane roads to accommodate the traffic.

But turn off any of those thoroughfares and you'll find an instant refuge from the chaos. You're among the friendliest people, the greenest gardens, the most eclectic architecture, and the most spirited public art you've encountered in any city before.

From the flower beds and gold-domed cathedrals of the Kremlin, to the placid boulevards of Chistiye Prudi, to the commuter hum of the Moscow Metro, to the vast green spaces (dotted with old military tanks) of Victory Park, this place is "City" writ large. And we took in all of it we could on foot, which is the best way, to my thinking, to experience an urban polyglot like Moscow.

I left a piece of my heart in Moscow, mainly with the people we met who call it home. Shy, red-headed Natalia. Sweet, simple Lev. Agreeable Pasha, who smiled at the world. Beautiful Nastya, with her contagious laugh and knack for storytelling on overnight trains. Fetching Anna, in her crisp white shirts and impeccable English. And of course Natasha, who went beyond interpreter to become both tour guide and caretaker to four American shutterbugs, who occasionally had to pinch ourselves when we realized, Here we are.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Postcard from Borodino

On our last day in Golitsyno, Natasha invited us to join her on a day trip to Borodino, the site where the Russian army halted Napoleon's forces in 1812. Russians take their monuments seriously, and like most things in the country, these are larger than life. Natasha told us they were destroyed twice before but being rebuilt again in the nineties. Though shiny and new, they're no less hallowed or historical than if they'd been around since the mid-19th century.

They're also a favorite for new brides and grooms, who will generally travel with their photographer and wedding party -- Russian weddings don't have the American equivalent of bridesmaids and groomsmen, just a best man and maid of honor, the latter of which wears a short, bright dress and a pageant-like banner around her torso -- and have photos taken in front of each memorial. We watched as one couple stood with arms outstretched, mimicking flight, as they posed before of an obelisk with a wingspread eagle on top. We hoped they might crawl down to the underground bunker or walk the top of the earthen barricade that gave the Russian soldiers a place to retreat between shootings. They refrained, but that didn't keep us from our own explorations. We regretted that we'd miss battle-reenactment season, which reportedly happens each fall.

Our final stop was the Saviour Borodino Monastery, where Orthodox nuns walked in hunched silence in black habits. It was the quietest place we encountered in Russia, a nice refuge from Borodino's entry point, where we bought matreoshka dolls and enjoyed a Russian ice cream novelty.

I'm not generally a fan of bombast, particularly of the military variety. But this one certainly came about honestly. So give me your vaunting monuments, Russia. You can count on my awe in return.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Postcard from Golitsyno

Our first few days in Golitsyno -- we were there to attend a seminar sponsored by the Moscow School of Political Studies -- were marked by longing. Longing for the sluggish trains that made the one-hour trip multiple times a day into Moscow, where we imagined much more exotic things to occupy our time.

But we were there to be students. Learners. Observers of the community-development projects that program participants were bringing to life in their own regions. It may sound nice on paper, but after several hours listening to depleted translators in hot, overcrowded rooms, we felt worn down, ready to see the capital that buzzed with activity just an hour away, like a mirage. We figured that's where the action was, and we felt stuck: no common language, no familiar food, no real sense of active purpose.

Over the course of our five days in Golitsyno, though, we developed a gradual but profound affection for our humble dorm, tucked back in the remnants of the Russian woods. We attended lectures by regional experts on the current political dynamics in Russia. We met heads of state and independent journalists. We drank dark beer at the little canteen on campus, with its rustic interior and red tablecloths.

We took walks into the "town" of Golitsyno, really more a glorified tent city, a canopied swap-meet of synthetic clothes, kitchen goods, baskets, and shoes, plus an occasional produce vendor, sitting on a milkcrate, with homegrown radishes or scallions for sale. Our guide Natasha lamented the Baskin Robbins that had just moved into the area. We didn't dare tell her we popped in one afternoon and treated ourselves to pistachio cones to beat the heat.

Our last night on campus was spent in the seminar's closing ceremony, a protracted affair scheduled to last 45 minutes, but lingering on for over two hours (I never quite got used to Russia time). Afterward, we were treated to a lavish dinner in the institute's cafeteria, where Mikhail, our favorite interpreter indulged his second love: singing in the tradition of Edith Piaf. The bolder students danced and danced while vodka shots were passed around.

As the music faded, Lena, the school's founder -- an imposing woman in gigantic, blue-tinted glasses -- told us how proud she was of the school and how worried for its financial future. There are no easy funding sources in Russia, and maverick programs like hers have to patch together outside contributions to get by. Lena pointed to Olga, a young woman we developed a friendship with (she spoke English better than most, and we shamefully had no Russian at our disposal), and said, "You see Olga? I love her. She lives in Caucuses. Near Chechnya. Every day, she doesn't know what will come. Explosions. Terrorism. What about her husband and children? Anything can happen. But here she is. She shows up, she smiles, and she's alive."

With Olga at our side, we spent the final hours of our final night watching the World Cup match between the US and England with a group of young people representing Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ukraine, Croatia, the northern Caucuses, Bulgaria, the UK, and Azerbaijan. USA fans were clearly outnumbered -- I momentarily considered defecting myself -- but we watched in good humor, cheering on our respective teams, playfully mocking our adversaries (and them us), and swooning collectively over the quick camera shots of Beckham in a suit. We raised our glasses to every goal, and we traded barbs in our borrowed languages.

Our adventure had begun.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

From Russia, with love

About 15 years ago, I had a dream that I was walking along the campus I attended as a graduate student, and a friend approached me, completely out of breath, saying he had an airline ticket to Moscow and it was mine if I wanted it, but I needed to leave right then and there -- no time to notify my boss, my students, my family, or friends. I fretted for a few minutes -- how could I leave town so recklessly? -- but in the end I grabbed the ticket and hightailed it out of Dodge. The plane landed in the heart of Red Square, with a pristine, technicolor view of St. Basil's Cathedral.

I was a teaching assistant at the time, every bit my anxious father's daughter, and hardly the impetuous type. Clearly this dream was less about Moscow than about opening myself to a new way of being: freer, more spontaneous, less worried about the world and my tight swaddling within it.

Still, I've been haunted by the image of Moscow itself ever since. Russia: a mythic, yet totally modern place. Larger than life. The stuff of both storybooks and international incidents. An enemy. A changeling. A mother. A stratosphere unto itself.

It never occured to me I'd actually get there, but lo and behold, two weeks ago today, I stepped off a United Airlines Airbus into the outskirts of Moscow. It'd be another few days before I made it to Red Square, the stuff of my fantasies this last decade and a half.

Can I tell you a secret? I was horribly unmoved. The grounds leading up to St. Basil's are clogged with tourists and souvenir stands. You can bargain for matreoshka dolls and Russian faux fur hats. Actors dressed like Lenin and Stalin wander the grounds, offering to pose next to you in a picture for a handful of rubles. The cathedral facade was recently restored, so it almost seemed artificial, like something you'd be more likely to find in Las Vegas. A facsimile or sound stage.

It would take me a few days longer to realize that Russia can't be contained within that image of St. Basil's twisting rooftops. It bleeds far beyond the standard iconography. And it's that very beyond that I fell in love with.

With your permission, I plan to do some retrospective blogging these next few posts, trying to capture the experience of my 12 days in Russia, which brought me to metro centers, rural hinterlands, and so much in between. Given the jetlag and my return to workaday life, the experience is already starting to fade. I'd like to harness it here, and also let it chip away a little, the way I wish they'd let St. Basil's chip away, so it seemed to contain some history, some marks of its lengthy tenure on the map.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

I didn't take this photo this morning, but I could have . . .

. . . or at least one a lot like it. Ok, it's true, this image is from India (technicalities, technicalities), but that doesn't take away from the fact that I bumped into a bike rickshaw a lot like this one -- handmade and beautifully unbranded -- while I was walking Inez this morning around 6.

It was parked in front of a house I've always admired, with at least four jerry-rigged tall bikes locked up along the fence, and usually a bunch of pierced, gritty roughnecks sharing a smoke on the front porch. Sometimes you'll see one of the guys hop on his bike and ride away, towering over the ubiquitous vans and SUVs, hightailing it down the street, weaving through traffic, generally doing whatever navigation needs to be done, since by the way, the bike has no brakes.

That particular block is pretty ganged up. So I've always liked the fact that this group of guys found their way to that apartment, and they seem to be sticking around for a while. Between the nuns to the south and these tattooed badasses to the north, the gangbangers have their work cut out for them.

But back to the rickshaw. It's a kinder, gentler apparatus than you usually see at that house. Bright yellow. Handpainted. And when I went back to take a photo before 8am, it was already gone. Which means its driver is a morning person, probably on his way to work.

I leave for Russia on Tuesday, and in my ideal world, I skip the plane altogether, and that cheerful rickshaw spirits me toward the eastern seaboard, across the mighty Atlantic, over the northern portions of the European continent, across the former nations of the Soviet bloc, and directly into Red Square.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


How to pull off a secret wedding? Keep it in the neighborhood.

1) Hold it on your 40th birthday on the back patio of your favorite local watering hole. People will expect you to be dressed up fancy. They'll expect the free-flowing wine, bbq fare, and even the pretty flowers on the tables. They won't be expecting the nuptials. Zing!

2) Enlist people you know to take the photos, cook the vittles, and even officiate the ceremony.

3) Share the secret only on a need-to-know basis. The bar owner should know, as should his lovely wife, who may plant a few extra flowers in the back patio in advance. The officiant (yours truly) and photographer must know. The caterer, not so much. He's happy to cook up a storm thinking it's just your birthday.

4) Invite friends from far and wide, as well as just around the corner. The former wouldn't miss it since they've travelled so far. The latter will pop over since it's so close by. They might even bring homemade ice cream or strawberry rhubarb pie, it being your birthday and all.

5) Raise as many glasses as you like. It's walking distance home.

Congratulations, Tracy and Joe! This was one for the history books.