Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

10 Jul 2001, 10:10 a.m.

Moscow, Part I

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2001 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

This is approximately the first third of my Moscow travelogue. I plan to also have it available at my own personal webspace soonish.

Day One: Friday night.
A buoyant bunch of twenty ACTR students and a few authority figures piled into Muscovsky Vokzal (Moscow Train Station) in St. Petersburg around 10:30 on Friday night. (My Russian-language successes that day and in the previous few days included calling a clerk-girl "devushka" for the first time and bargaining down the price of some flowers.) A lot of us brought food and drink -- not by choice, mind you, but because our homestay mothers had made us. I, for one, got away with only bringing a liter of apple juice. Unopened box. No food -- well, none that she had chosen.

We met by the bust of Peter the Great in the big hall. A huge head on a huge pedestal. (A room or two away from slot machines and kiosks selling everything from toothbrushes to CDs to pirozhki.) I arrived early and saw Marcus, a British/Spanish student on a rather ad hoc study-in-St. Petersburg program, outside. I know him only from this International Telephone / Telegraph Office, from which I write these very words. He was leaving for a Moscow visit, too, but he'd be leaving the country soon after. I wished him well. I'm really glad when I contrast my program with his -- I get more time in St. Petersburg, more actual interaction with Russians (with my lovely homestay), and probably a better social and academic overall experience. Thanks, ACTR! Thanks, Mom and Dad!

Kate (a.k.a. Katya, since "Katya" is a legit Russian-declinable name and "Kate" isn't), John and I were the three non-Russians in a four-person "coupe`." The fourth turned out to be "Misha." Misha did not speak much at all. Katya and John and I had been laughing away, and then he entered, and ... silence. I tried to engage him in conversation, at least to introduce ourselves. As John put it, my attempts fell into a conversational black hole.

Translation of the intro. conversation, during which I was barely containing my laughter, since even I knew that it was funny at the time, follows.

[Long pause] We're students from America.
[Long pause]

My name is ... [John and Katya follow in suit]
I am named Misha.
[Long pause]
Would you like some juice?
No, thanks.

Eventually, we got some cracks in Misha's facade. He -- I'm sure quite sarcastically -- asked, "And where did you learn to speak Russian so well?" and spoke some in English. He claimed to be a computer programmer, although John and I now flirt with the idea that he's something a bit more underhanded.

We all tried to sleep, although the noise and the White Nights didn't help too much. I think that when Misha said the next morning that my friends and I had prevented him from getting a good night's sleep, he was joking.

Day Two: Saturday.
Early Saturday morning we arrived half-dead in Moscow. We got on a bus, got to the hotel, waited to be processed (during which downtime Lauren and Melissa ate animal crackers and discussed their favorite authors), checked into our rooms (Hot water! And water I can brush my teeth with! "I'm going to brush my teeth four times a day, for the sheer novelty of it."), ate a non-wonderful breakfast of bread and cheese and blini (pancakes) and cheese, and got on a bus to see the sights of Moscow, narrated by a friendly Russian guide.

The guide was nice, but her cadence and vocab bored and confused us respectively. (When she started mentioning Kiev and early Russian history and names thereof, a number of us got shivers, recollecting recent Russian history lectures that were even more impenetrable.) And I just felt like such a ... a tourist.

I bought a shirt. After some bargaining, it was $4, rather than $5. It featured a map of the Moscow metro. In Russian, of course.

There are lots of clocks in Moscow. I feel as though there are more clocks in public spaces here than in St. Petersburg. Maybe this jibes with the stereotype of Muscovites as always in a hurry. Forget not that

Moscow : St. Petersburg :: New York : San Francisco

A number of people have bought rather large soft drink bottles -- around a liter or so -- and had an odd phenomenon occur in which:

  1. Person opens drink.
  2. Drink does not explode.
  3. Person drinks from bottle, closes or does not close bottle with cap.
  4. A few minutes later, drink explodes, froths over, etc.

John thinks it's the unusually long neck of these particular bottles. Any chemists, fluid dynamics experts, or Coke engineers in the house?

The last stop on our bus tour -- the fifth or so time we got out of the bus -- was Krasnaya ploschad. Red Square. The Kremlin, Lenin's tomb, Saint Basil's, the works. How in the world did I get to Russia?! Saint Basil's Cathedral is amazing, bar none, wow, oh my goodness, wow.

Krista, her Russian peer tutor, John and I wandered for a bit. We ended up eating near the Kremlin at -- I debase myself just mentioning the name -- Sbarro's. Yes, the fake-Italian mall-food-court "restaurant." There is one mall, it has been said, with many convenient locations. Well, one of them is off of Red Square. Yeesh. The soundtrack from The Godfather actually played, a bit, while we were eating.

It could have been worse. There was a T.G.I. Friday's in the same complex. And "Friday's" was not translated into "Pyatnitsa," as one might expect. "Slav Bogu, eto Pyatnitsa." No, it was all just transliterated. Darn it. I prefer more elegant representations of economic and cultural hegemony.

That night was dinner in the Chinese restaurant, inside the hotel, where our waitress spoke worse Russian than we did. Reassuring. I was hoping that that would be a sign -- as in the US -- that the food would be good (where the ethnic staff doesn't speak the native language of the country in which the restaurant in located, the food is usually better, no?), but it was merely adequate and overpriced. John and I did, however, have a great conversation -- which continued throughout the weekend -- about the morals and il/legalities of alcohol ab/use, gun control, and other sociopolitical issues.

Originally published by Sumana Harihareswara at