It’s hard to put a week into words…but I’ll try. First off, why Moscow? What better reason than a friend to visit – and the chance both to get to know her better in her home “town” and the no-small-gift of a tour guide! There’s nothing like being in a new place with a local, with a place to call “home” for the duration of the visit, with home-cooked meals, with tourist advice – and, even better, company along the way. (I might still be wandering around in subway tunnels without her patient guidance.)
Moscow is big…5-8 times the population of Vienna.
Orienteering is daunting. Subway stations and place names are multi-syllabic affairs. The Cyrillic letters are interesting but indecipherable for the uninitiated. Their sometimes-provided equivalents in Latin letters are also long and oft unpronounceable. Coming from a city where English works when German fails, I felt in this new context rather helpless, my default foreign language unlikely to bridge the communication barrier any better than English. …On another note about commuting: it takes a while – buses, both those that are part of the public transport network and an array of privately run mini-buses (quite shabby, but cheap and fairly efficient), trams, subways…. That said, the subway deserves praise – never did we wait even three minutes for a train. And, a lot of the subway stations are quite pretty, once you are below ground.
Moscow is grand. Don’t go looking for the quaint winding streets of Segovia, Spain, or Vienna, Austria, or Prague, Czech Republic. Apparently, the Soviet style was to broaden streets and impose stateliness. But, the buildings that really encapsulate grandeur certainly predate the Soviet era. The Kremlin is a large area, its grand brick walls and towers encompassing both governmental buildings in current use and a garden of onion domes. To one side lies the Red Square – Kremlin walls (and Lenin’s tomb, which I definitely did not visit) facing a line of fancy shops, and at the other two ends a set of imposing museums and St. Basil’s Cathedral (where the onion domes sprout the colors of the peppermint aisle of a candy shop).
Moscow has its own brand of the bureaucratic. Long after I’d booked my tickets, I learned that one must officially register if the visit lasts more than 7 days. So, the day after we arrived, we spent a large portion of the evening at the post office (an architectural relic lacking any great merit), trying to figure out the process. First, ask for the right forms and start filling them out – 2 identical copies, black or dark blue ink, all caps. Then, wait ages in another wing of the building to turn things in. Then, be told that the forms must be all in Cyrillic. (It did say that, but…really?) So, Alexandra filled out the forms all over again – this time making even my name and state of origin (Tennessee = Теннесси) look Russian!
Enough of impressions! High lights –people, places, and provender – demand closer attention.
Alexandra and I met when we were both working as native language teaching assistants in Mödling. It was an almost instant friendship; and since she moved (first to Ireland and then back to Moscow), we’ve talked of a visit to Russia some time. So, staying at her flat on the campus of Moscow State University (both her parents are scientist involved in climate-related research) , I got to meet her dad and (re-meet) her mom, as well as her 103-year-old grandmother (also a retired scientist!). Over the course of the week, we met up with a few of her friends as well, which meant getting the chance to know a bit more of Alexandra’s world. And, on the last day, we had coffee with a cellist I know from her various trips to Vienna.
The Kremlin area is really quite remarkable. I spent a good part of a day visiting the armory (treasury) and various churches (hurrying between sites in a bitter wind that made the first couple of sunny, spring-like days seem remote!) The museum houses an immense collection of Russian wealth, dating back hundreds of years. I, for one, can’t really comprehend that much silver, gold, armor, Fabergé, etc. Of particular elegance were two dinner sets – one boasting 3000 pieces. My, what a guest list and feast that would demand!
The churches are certainly worth a pictorial description! I’m not really inspired by iconography and the “busyness” of the church interiors, however historic. Most are painted more-or-less floor to ceiling (and ceiling, too) with geometric and floral motifs setting off figures of importance, with each church displaying its variation on iconostasy. Outside, I couldn’t really get enough of the exotic domes – bright gold or softly burnished.
…We also visited a lovely art museum (Tretyakov Gallery), housing a large array of icons, as well as numerous landscapes (the latter more to my liking, although there was a particularly nice old piece celebrating St. George the Dragon-Slayer). Another day we toured a house in the Art Neuveau style; the florally inspired woodwork was particularly lovely.
…Although it took a bit of finagling to get the proper permission for me to enter, we did manage to get inside the Moscow State University where Alexandra studied and where she and her family live. The building is one of seven such built by Stalin and scattered over the city (which is apparently built on seven hills, like Rome). It’s grand inside and out, and a few of the floors of the central tower house a natural history museum (which seems frozen in time from the 50’s, maybe).
…On quite another end of the spectacular spectrum was an overnight trip to Suzdal, a town about 3½ hours by bus or train from Moscow. Alexandra had been there before, and we were both eager for some smaller-scale exploring. An adventure indeed, which started with trying to find the right bus. This accomplished amidst the chaos of a gusty evening at a dust-blown bus station, we climbed on a rather derelict, if surprisingly comfortable, specimen of bus. About midnight, we reached Suzdal – or at least the side of the country road leading into town. It felt a bit ludicrous, but there was nothing to do but brace against the wind and aim in the only possible direction of town. About half-way to the lodgings we’d booked, we found a taxi to take us the rest of the way…for the under-$2 rural price! The next morning was equally blusterous and cold, but we certainly enjoyed the chance to investigate between mugs of hot coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or mead. The town is known for its centuries-old monasteries, and one did have the feeling that the number of church spires rivaled the local population.
…The last evening, I went to see a ballet (Coppélia), which somehow seemed like a “must do” in Russia.
…Besides all the places visited, I spent a good amount of time either at home or in a café with my computer, catching up on some work that I could do away from Vienna. It might sound boring, but it was really quite lovely. No piano to practice, no phone to answer, and the novelty of a new place to set up office temporarily.
I didn’t go to Russia knowing a lot about Russian cuisine. My first thoughts would have been caviar, vodka, and borscht. Strangely enough, I didn’t try any of those, but I hardly missed out! My favorite Russian food was “herring under a fur coat” – a strange but wonderful layered salad sporting potato, beetroot, herring, and mayonnaise. Man, it sounds pretty weird but was delicious! …One day Alexandra and I made a lemon meringue pie, which wasn’t bad, either.
Back to Vienna
The same day I returned from Russia, I welcomed a friend to Vienna for about 10 days. Easter Sunday was spent together with friends from church. In the evening (about 9:30), we spontaneously decided that it would be fun to take a train to Innsbruck – which we did (catching a train at 10:47). Not really having a plan isn’t my usual mode of travel, but it did turn out to be fun. In 48 hours, we managed to be in (or at least ride through) 7 of the 9 provinces of Austria (plus corners of Germany and Italy), see a lot of lovely snow-capped peaks, enjoy good conversation, and take a long walk along the beautiful Wörthersee.
The Sunday after Easter was the Vienna marathon, and I joined 41,000 other people to run in the day’s events. I wasn’t feeling very much like running a half marathon when the time actually came; but, I wasn’t going to waste 70 euros or just give up, either! Four guys from church were also participating, even though none of us finished together. Although I didn’t have a watch to pace myself (having lost track of my running buddy around mile 7), I kept a look-out for roadside clocks and was glad for any enthusiastic cheerers along the way (a group of friends at about the half-way point was the biggest boost, the only other memorable spectator being an animated nun). All said and done, I was glad I did it, having made my goal of under 2 hours (by 38 seconds!); I don’t ever have to run a ½ marathon again!
Since the array of travel and company, I have been trying to keep up and stay afloat. Two Klassenabenden (studio recitals), a pretty good array of visits with local friends, normal work and piano practice, and some splendid spring weather to soak in have all been good gifts. This month a friend is sharing the flat – extra motivation for the two of us to practice together in preparation for an upcoming concert.
Well, I think I’ve probably reached some sort of word quota. Perhaps the proverb could be rewritten: “When words are many, typos are not lacking.” But, I’ll trust to my gracious readers’ patience and sign off with a few more photos.