Sunday, November 14, 2010

More About Moscow

Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
 Trying to read the Cyrillic Alphabet is like trying to read an eye-chart. It’s the major obstacle for most visitors to Russia. When you can’t read street signs or stops on the Metro, you have to rely on someone who speaks English. In Russia, that usually means someone under thirty.

On one of our free days, Kathy and I decided to visit the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.  Sergei, our tour guide, had told us to take the Metro orange line across the street from our hotel and get off at the sixth stop and switch to the red line for one stop. Okay, that sounded easy. Until we realized that it would be wise to know the names of the stations for our return. The Metro map had no English version,  so I created a way to remember where we were. Metro stations in Russia, unlike in New York, vary in design. We had gotten on at a station that was silver in color. The second stop was white; the third was yellow. Because the fourth stop was done in alternating strips of black and white tiles, I named it “stripes.” Smart, huh? The next station reminded me of a Mondrian painting, so that was its name. We  got off at a station done in marble.

Heading back to our hotel, we ran into a little problem going from the red line to the orange line and had to ask for help. A young woman standing next to us on the crowded train overheard us talking and asked in English if she could help. Sitting in front of us was an old woman - a babushka - with a cane and a cast on her leg. The young woman and the old woman conferred. The old woman signaled for us to follow her down the very long escalator and then a flight of stairs, through the crowds and onto the marble station. From there, Kathy and I just went backwards: Mondrian, stripes, yellow, white and silver.

Some of our discoveries about Moscow include the overwhelming amount of smokers. Everywhere. You can’t escape the smoke while you’re walking on the street, sitting in the hotel lobby or dining in a restaurant or coffee shop.
 I had forgotten how awful it is to smell wafting smoke from nearby tables while you’re trying to enjoy your dinner.

Kathy was the first to notice that no one wore eyeglasses. All we counted were the lady on the bus who collected fares, a middle-aged man in one of the shops, and two more women on the street. Could the Russians all have perfect vision? Are they all wearing contacts? Are they vain? Whatever the answer, perhaps it’s one reason why Moscow roads are the most dangerous in the world.

Traffic in Moscow is unbelievable. Until you see it, it’s hard to imagine. Not only the number of cars on the road but also the absolute disregard for any traffic signs, or safety measures. When the Russian television station reported that Moscow has the highest number of deaths by auto than any other city in the world, I was not surprised. In our tour bus, we held our breaths many times as cars and trucks darted in and out along highways and side streets. At one point I swear it was only a matter of two or three inches between our bus and a car. At one intersection - with a traffic light, no less - we were blocked. No one could or would move. Drivers got out of their cars to berate other drivers, horns blaring, tempers flaring.

If you think this is an exaggeration, I urge you to check out this website and watch the video.

Russian TV recently interviewed a young woman who said that she felt a bit guilty because she "bought" her driving license. Instead of paying for driving lessons and taking the driver’s test, she said she took the money given to her by her father and went to a friend who gave her a forged driver's license for a fee. The broadcaster said this is a rather common occurrence. Check out the Voice of Russia website that tells more about the corruption in getting a driver’s license.

The Moscow experience was something I’ll never forget. It’s what travel is all about - discovering, learning, and appreciating home.

Next: St. Petersburg

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