“But why do you want to go to Russia?” Our answers varied, depending upon the audience: Because it is a very old country; Because John loves Russian literature; Because it is our 30th anniversary, and we want to do something amazing.”
The tone of the repeating question, “Why Russia?” resembled the question that our suburban neighbors asked when we moved to urban Old Louisville six years ago. “Why do you want to move down there?” they said. Such a question is what linguists refer to as a meta-message, a phrase that implies more than it says. Really? Are you crazy?
“But don’t worry,” I explained to friends who entertained visions of the Gulag: “We’re going on a Viking River Cruise.” Three meals a day, interpreters, a soft bed with clean sheets and flushing toilets. A comfortable but small cabin in which all the essentials would be conveniently arranged so we might pivot from shower to sink to toilette. Not quite like home, but close enough.
The decision to go on a cruise in the Russian Federation made me feel a traitor to travel. Authentic travel, in my view, requires that you learn the basics of language, explore food, hotels and transportation. Get lost. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘travel’ evolves from the Middle English ‘travail.’
Only tourists go on cruises.
In my youth, travel was what my family did. Our six years overseas were uncomfortable, educational, awkward, and pleasurable. Every other year, my father’s company allowed us to return to the United States for a summer. In kid-time, these return visits seemed infrequent. Consequently, the US began to seem exotic, and the foreign country began to feel like home. I might have shunned this inheritance of wanderlust. I could have become a devout homebody. Though I value deeply the ability to claim one place as “home,” the compulsion to travel remains. It is one way I can surprise myself, flex my worldview, and recalibrate “home.”
Two realities dictated our decision to be coddled on a cruise-boat in the Russian Federation: (1) the Cyrillic alphabet, and (2) the punk band, Pussy Riot. The Cyrillic alphabet, invented by sibling monks Cyril and Methodius in the 9th Century AD, is a combination of Greek, Hebrew and Roman letters. To learn the language, you must first learn the alphabet.
As for Pussy Riot, two of the band members were imprisoned in 2010 for their profane protest of all things Putin, in a Russian Orthodox Church. This illustrates the shaky nature of free speech in the formerly Communist country.
To assuage our need to experience a country without the company of one hundred of our closest friends, we opted for the “cruise extension.” This would allow us to explore Moscow two days before boarding the ship, on our own, with a little help from a tour guide.
Our first walk was in search of dinner. Our English-speaking concierge directed us to restaurant in the park across the street. The signage outside each restaurant read “ресторан,” which is pronounced “restauran.” Thus began the experience of reading and speaking Russian like a toddler.
The ресторан in the park was a lively café with both indoor and outdoor seating. The waiter seated us next to the piano player, who performed an incongruous mix of Nora Jones, Cole Porter, Scott Joplin, and Russian folk music on a tinny studio piano with lighted candelabras on its topside. Amidst the sustained rumbling of happy young Russians, we ordered quickly, though we would have preferred to linger awhile. The waiter handed us menus with English translations, then stood there until we pointed to what we wanted. “Can you come back later?” I asked. This did not work, no matter how slowly I spoke. We were true “travailers” on that first evening, enduring minor travails to eat dinner.
The next morning we met a guide for a tour of the subway. For tourists in New York or Chicago, a subway is a necessity, not a destination. In Moscow, the subway is one of Fodor’s ten top places. Each station contains 1930’s-era décor: bronze castings of laborers, backlighted stained glass, gold-gilded baroque ceilings and chandeliers heavy with light. The mosaic ceilings celebrate agriculture and labor, welders, scientists, milkmaids dancing in fields of wheat, and Vladimir Lenin.
Seven million people travel the Moscow subway daily, which is one of the reasons that policemen bearing Kalashnikovs are prolific there. These millions of Russians ascend and descend steep escalators 80 meters deep (250 feet), a journey that takes four-minutes. The escalator ride provides adequate time for public displays of affection. PDA’s in Moscow work like this: a young lover faces forward, the other faces backward. Each couple speaks the international language of love: private jokes, shared laughter, breathy whispers, eyes-locked, lips kissed.
For our first two days in Russia, we traveled the subway to Red Square, and the Kremlin, and St. Basil’s Cathedral, and the Pushkin Art Museum. Occasionally we lost ourselves. At times, we were unable to find word-patterns for our destinations. John persisted—he refused to let a little language problem defeat him.
At the close of our solo travel in Moscow, we boarded the cruise ship and journeyed seven-days to St. Petersburg. We viewed an abundance of onion domes, which, we learned, actually represent candle flames rather than root vegetables. We visited Romanov tombs. We learned about Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, who were neither, and both. Our tour guides lectured on history and culture. They made Putin jokes. Some said they missed the simplicity of “Soviet Days,” when Russians did not worry about what they owned, because they owned nothing.
Everyone complained about the traffic, a casualty of Capitalism. From the height of our stopped tour buses, we looked down upon Rolls Royce and BMW, Mercedes and Maserati, their motors idling. Immobile traffic is a great equalizer. There was justice in the fact of the aristocratic Rolls Royce and Bentley waiting with the proletariat Skoda and Lada.
There is a soothing rhythm to a cruise—one that ensures the trip will feel like a vacation. Russia remained exotic, as viewed from our verandah. Our tour leaders excelled in guidance, especially on long coach bus journey, where they became lively storytellers.
A few days after our return, when the laundry was clean and my jet lag hangover had subsided, John and I sat on our front porch in Old Louisville. We reviewed photos and memories.
“What do you think you’ll remember most about Russia?” I asked.
“The Moscow subway,” John said.
In Russia, we walked through baroque palaces, strolled grand plazas, stood arms-length in front of ancient church iconography, huddled around the Faberge egg, pondered Romanov tombs, and lingered by palace fountains that spouted in unison to the tune of the rousing national anthem. In spite of these exotic experiences, we will remember most fondly the travails of losing and finding ourselves in a place far from home.
In memory, I am walking circles in the subway, slowly adjusting to escalator vertigo. We have lost our way. I grumble at John— a public display of irritation. After 30 minutes, he announces: “Here it is!” He has discovered the word for our destination, a word that I can neither read nor pronounce. Relieved, but still annoyed, I walk ahead of him. I jump through the open doors of the train. I turn to see the doors close, and John on the other side. He holds up two fingers— get off in two stops, he signals. Here I am, the lone American in a train speeding far below the streets of Moscow. The subway riders behave as subway riders do around the world; they ignore me and each other. I grasp the steel rail as the train speeds toward my destination and sigh deeply at the pleasure of travel.
За ваше здоровье!
For your health!
Words about the writing process: A version of this essay I published in September 2013 in a former blog. I share it here during the time of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in honor of a beautiful and complex country. I love to travel almost as much as I love to write essays about travels. The trick of travel-essay writing is to know what to include, leave out and condense. And there is plenty of fact-checking for this type of personal essay. If you can’t find two sources that confirm your information, leave it out!
No one wants to traverse each detail of someone’s travels, like a slide-show one must politely endure. The internal journey is the thing that makes writing speak to the reader. You cannot guarantee pleasing the reader, not matter how specific or artful your writing might be. But you can please yourself!
Always, what I learn about my views of the world, through travel, is more important than the journey itself. As Mark Twain once said, in his book Innocents Abroad/Roughing It, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime” (as cited on https://www.goodreads.com).