Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Final Moments in Moscow

Oops, I took an unintended hiatus from the blog but I haven't forgotten about Moscow!

We spent the entire final day touring the Kremlin. We joined many other visitors in a long line early in the morning. Because we weren't attached to a tour group, we had to secure our own tickets and the process was a little confusing but we finally managed to enter the sprawling complex.

We strolled through Ivan Square and saw the Tsar Bell and Cannon. We were able to tour a new museum, the Ivan the Great Bell-Tower. We were given audio guides to take us through the tower. It was an interesting blend of old and new, with multimedia images projected onto the tower's walls. The history of the Kremlin's construction is so vast. I admit that at some points during the extremely comprehensive audio lesson I zoned out and missed huge gaps of information.

In one of the rooms I remember listening to something about the 16th century and then suddenly the voice in my ears had brought us up to the current date. I must have somehow missed at least 15 minutes of information. But no matter, I think the crowning moment of the tour of the tower is climbing to the upper gallery and being rewarded (for all of that hard work listening) with a bird's eye view of the Kremlin and the city of Moscow beyond.

After the tower, we made our way to Cathedral Square and visited all of the grand cathedrals. They were very different from any I've seen before, with their golden cupolas and what seems like thousands of frescoes lining the walls from floor to ceiling. All of the cathedrals were crowded with tourists and walking through them was almost overwhelming because there was so much to see.

By now it was afternoon and we were hungry so we decided to break for lunch and then return to the Kremlin to tour the Armoury. As we made our way out we noticed lots of fancy black sedans with tinted windows parked outside the Grand Kremlin Palace. We thought something must be happening, that perhaps we might catch a glimpse of Vladimir. We stood around with a hundred other people, watching the comings and goings of the anonymous cars but finally hunger overtook us.

Just outside the Kremlin is a shopping mall with lots of chain restaurants. I was surprised to see a Sbarro and we decided that would probably be the quickest and most economical choice for our quick lunch. On our way to the restaurant we noticed some military buses lined up on the road leading to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We could also see that a military band was getting ready to march. There was an electricity in the air, an anticipation of something, and people were beginning to gather. Of course now my curiosity was on overload and I was dying to know what was happening.

Sbarro actually has windows facing out toward the Tomb and I decided to ask the friendly server if she knew about any special event.

"I'll just have a slice of cheese pizza please," I said.
"Excellent choice!" she replied. "Is there something else?"
"Actually, I was wondering if you know what's going on at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider," I said.
She frowned in concentration and then said, "Ahh, yes! There is some king who's coming. He's going to lay the wreath."
"Wow!" I almost shouted. "Do you know which king?"
"Hmmm... I cannot remember," she said regrettfully.
"Okay, well thank you!"

This was enough information for me anyway. I was already imagining Prince William and Kate. I wondered if they would bring George and Harry. Or the Queen. I gathered my tray and began walking away from the line, stars in my eyes as I imagined the monumental moment the British Royal Family would spot me in the crowd and shout, "Hello! We are having a party later and you're invited!" This was a little like my minor hallucination that George Clooney was going to organize a birthday party for me at his villa in Lake Como. But I digress.

Before I could walk away, the kind woman shouted after me, "Wait! I just remembered! It's the Prince of Monaco!"

Hmmmm... slightly less exciting than Will and Kate but I'd take it! I rushed over to the table and breathlessly told my husband (in a terrible run-on sentence), "I just found out what's happening. A prince is going to lay the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier! And it's happening in 15 minutes! So we have to eat and drink fast because I'm NOT missing this! And guess who it is. You will never guess!"

He stared at me blankly, a slice of pizza hovering halfway to his mouth. "I give up," he said.

With an exasperated sigh I said, "Prince Albert!!!!"

He began to chew on the pizza, accompanied still by a blank look.

With a look that I hoped conveyed to him how disappointed I was by his lack of knowledge about princes, I exclaimed, "Monaco! The Prince of Monaco! GEEZ! You know, Grace Kelly?!"

I sat down huffily and began inhaling my food. I sensed that this event was not as life-altering for my husband as it was for me but I knew he would humor me so he also wolfed down his food and then I practically ran out of the mall and onto the steps overlooking the Tomb.

What greeted us outside was a scene similar to the one we left when we went in for lunch: people milling around, excitement bristling in the cold temperatures, and even more military getting into formation. What had changed was also pretty thrilling. There were now plainclothes secret servicemen patrolling the crowds and there were very Russian-looking men standing guard a few feet from the crowds, wearing earpieces and scanning everyone. I felt like I was in a movie. I hate to feed stereotypes but these burly men really did all look like James Bond. Just behind us, we saw two of the plainclothes guys approach two surly-looking men. One of them was holding a backpack. The agents leaned down and calmly spoke to them. Suddenly they followed the guards into the mall and away from the crowd and we never saw them again! I admit I have a flair for the dramatic, but that is really what happened! It was very surreal.

Eventually the military marched in, playing their instruments. Lots of official-looking people followed behind them and approached the Tomb. I used my camera for binoculars and soon spotted the thinning hair on top of Prince Albert's head. Of course, the ceremony was quite short. As soon as the wreath was laid and pictures were posed for, Albert and his entourage were swiftly driven away from the Tomb and back inside the Kremlin. The crowds dispersed and the Russian James Bonds went back to their secret lairs filled with weapons and technology we don't even know of yet. Or they just went to lunch. They probably went to lunch.

Next up was the Kremlin Armoury. It's one of the oldest museums in Moscow. We waited in another long line, this time behind some young Russian men. I only mention this anecdote because I found it amusing. We'd been in Moscow for a couple of days by now and we were accustomed to the curious stares we received when people realized we are American. No one had been hostile or confrontational, though, and I actually found Russians to be more genial than lots of Germans we've met since living here. Russians might be curious about an American but at least they didn't fix us with unflinching, piercing stares.

Anyway, the two men ahead of us in line heard us speaking at some point and both turned around with curious glances at us. After a while it seemed like any time we'd say something, one of them would turn around to look at us and then look to each other and smirk. We weren't talking about anything interesting, certainly not about politics, but this was during the government shutdown in America and I guess even people in Russia were talking about it. Eventually the more brazen of the two said something to his friend and then turned so we would be sure to hear him as he said, "government shutdown. Ha ha ha." I'm not sure if he expected some response but we just smiled and diverted our eyes. I had the impression that he thought he was making fun of us but I couldn't be certain. Oh, to be fluent in a thousand languages. It was quite bizarre.

We finally made it inside the Armoury and kept our distance from the Russian comedians. The Armoury contains a dizzying collection of more than four thousand items. There's everything from armor and weapons to crowns and jewels. I found the room with imperial horse-drawn carriages the most interesting. You could truly spend an entire day perusing all of the collections in the Armoury. It was very impressive.

The day had gone by in a blur; we'd seen and done so much in a short amount of time. The only thing left was our final dinner in Moscow.

My husband is always tasked with finding restaurants during our travels. He's usually pretty spot-on and has a knack for finding hip places off-the-beaten path, with interesting menus. Ragout is located just outside the Presnya neighborhood. Reservations are a must. The vibe was young and cool, but also comfortable. The restaurant was filled with bustling activity and the sound of buoyant conversation and laughter. We were shown to our table right away and attended to by an engaging waiter with excellent English. An Israeli chef keeps the menu interesting and fun. I had delicious hummus as an appetizer. When it was time for dessert I went out on a limb and chose beet ice cream. It was surprisingly tasty!

We decided to take a long stroll back to our hotel. There was a lot going on in Moscow that night. Metal detectors and security guards were posted all over the grounds outside the Kremlin. We had to go through several checkpoints, emptying our pockets and having our bags checked. There was a military convoy surrounding a building but upon closer inspection we saw wires hanging above and it looked as if they might have been filming something. While we didn't know what was happening or why, it was exciting to wander through the maze of people enjoying the sights and sounds of Moscow at night.

I would return to Moscow in a heartbeat. There is still a lot left to see and do in this vibrant city. People are standoffish but friendly, going out to dinner is a truly wonderful experience, and seeing St. Basil's Cathedral in person is astounding.

I admit that some of the buildings are austere and cold. It sometimes seems as if there couldn't possibly be people living and breathing inside these places. Driving into Moscow from the airport isn't exactly pleasing. Apartments don't look particularly inviting or homey under dreary skies and clouds of pollution. I am also aware that we visited but one place in Russia, a staggeringly huge country. What's more, we were in a city, not the vast Siberia that stretches beyond the walls of the Kremlin.

But in Moscow, people are dining out, going on dates, strolling through parks, and shopping in malls. There may be security guards and metal detectors at the entrances of buildings but everyone walks through and goes about their daily lives. By the end of our stay, I couldn't help but feel that the shroud of gray I saw covering Moscow on the way in from the airport had lifted. I hope I'm fortunate enough to return to Russia someday.

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