“Why Russia?” This was the question frequently asked, when we announced our plans. 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. Safety? No worries. We’ll be going on a cruise. Three meals a day, interpreters, a soft bed with clean sheets and flushing toilets. A comfortable but small cabin in which we would be able to pivot from shower to sink to toilette.
The truth is I felt like a traitor to my strongly held belief. Serious travelers do NOT go on cruises. Serious travelers explore, lose themselves in foreign lands. In my view, authentic travel requires immersion. I should learn snippets of language, try peculiar foods, stay in small locally-owned hotels and take varied forms of transportation (not including coach buses). This strategy implies occasional discomfort. As it should be. The word ‘travel’ evolved from the Middle English word ‘travail.’
I want to be the kind of traveler who freely frolicks across the Russian steppes, eating borscht after pausing at a Banya for a refreshing sweat and a birch-bark beating, all without a tour guide.
Two realities guided our decision to be coddled on a cruise-boat in the Russian Federation: the Cyrillic alphabet and 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 women in the punk band had been imprisoned in 2010 for their profane protest of Putin in a Russian Orthodox Church, which illustrates the shaky nature of free speech in the formerly Communist country.
Before boarding a boat with 100 strangers, we opted for the “cruise extension.” This enabled us to explore Moscow two days on our own, with a little help from a tour guide. Our first walk was in search of dinner. We found a restaurant in the park across the street. We noted frequent signage reading, “ресторан,” which is actually pronounced “restauran.” Thus began the experience of reading and speaking Russian like a toddler.
The hostess at our first restaurant 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. 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. He remained standing by the table. On that first evening, we were true travelers, 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. Natives 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. A few times, we lost ourselves and were unable to find the words for our destinations. My husband persisted—refusing to let a little language problem defeat him. He had, after all, studied the Cyrillic alphabet.
At the close of our solo travel in Moscow, we boarded the cruise ship. 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 terrible and great. Our tour guides lectured us 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. 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 reviewed photos and memories. In Russia, we had 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 experiences, we will remember most fondly the travails of losing and finding ourselves.
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 discovers 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 and turn to see the doors close—with John on the other side of the glass. He holds up two fingers— get off in two stops, he signals. Here I am, the lone American in a train speeding 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, sighing audibly at the pleasure of travel.
За ваше здоровье!
For your health!
Note to the reader: 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).