Farewell Russia


Tim Tams in Moscow

We arrive back in Moscow and I’m suddenly tired and beyond caring about anything.  I decide I’m getting a taxi to my hotel and give Lari a lift into the city.  A man approaches me to offer a taxi and I give him the destination.  He gives me the price, 2500 roubles, assigns a driver to me and follows us to the car.  I sit in the seat and the driver tells me, in Russian, to give the money to the man.  I’m not sure about that idea and ask him if he’s sure and that I’m not paying any more later.  The guy looks in the window expectantly and I hand him the money.  Everyone’s happy; I’m now worried about this situation and ten minutes into the journey we are stuck in backed up traffic.  We go nowhere for five minutes and the driver asks if we would like to go another way.  I agree, but point out I don’t have any more money.“No problem, fixed price”, he explains.  I relax into the seat and let the journey drift past me.  We are making a huge detour away from all the freeways and I’m very happy we’re on a fixed price trip.  As we follow the river for a while we see traffic on the freeways completely stopped for kilometres.  It’s early Thursday afternoon here and this can’t be normal.  Our driver embarks on a commentary, in Russian, that I manage to understand parts of.
“Only in Moscow! Everything stops! In England and America, they make this work, but here in Moscow…look at it”, he gestures hopelessly with his hand, “Our government cannot make simple things work.  No wonder we are all poor…Only in Moscow!”
He continues the monologue with only a few short breaks all the way along the forty minute trip to the hotel. I let it wash over me, I dont like Moscow and he is giving me more reasons.

Moscow sunset over the river

Amazing view

We exit happily and he waves us goodbye.  As we approach it, I realise I’m staying in a building I saw seven weeks earlier, the one that looks like a flying saucer has landed on the roof.  That flying saucer is a restaurant with an astonishing view of Moscow and I decide to have a nightcap there. I check-in and find my room is new, enormous and also has an astonishing view.  I’m facing the river and on the 14th floor, which places me above almost every other building in the city.  My shower is the pinnacle of the madness.  There is a huge thirty centimetre shower head that sprays onto an open stone floor next to the bath itself; as well as a standard hand held shower nozzle fitted on the bath.  I immediately jump in and use both showers at once just to see what true decadence feels like.  It seems a fitting celebration of the end of my journey across Russia.  There is an automatic espresso machine in my room and we start making coffee to have with it.  I feel exhausted, drained.  I know I have to leave the country in two days, but I want some reason, some excuse not to.  I know Alisha is arriving to meet us in the morning and she will Couchsurf in my hotel room, since she doesn’t know so many people in Moscow.  Lari pulls out her streetmaps to get oriented and to find how to get to the hostel she will stay in.  I tell her again she can just stay here, but she wants to stay separately after spending six weeks living in each other’s pockets.  I bid her farewell and draw all the curtains before enjoying an incredibly blissful sleep.

In the morning, I arrive in good time to meet Alisha at the train station.  She sends a message twenty minutes before arriving and then disappears.  I wait for twenty minutes after she arrives and there’s no sign of her on any of the trains.  Her phone is now switched off, so I’m assuming she’s run out of battery life at the worst possible moment.  I walk around the train station looking for her, but there’s no sign.  I walk back out the front and suddenly think I’m at the wrong station.  I ask a taxi driver where the station is and he laughs and points behind me.  I’ve been waiting at the wrong one.  I rush inside to find Alisha standing inside the door looking stressed.

Doing the Tim Tam Slam

Lari's afternoon action

“My beautiful Georgian man!”  I give her a big hug and apologise for my stupidity
Alisha looks tired and hasn’t slept much on the train overnight.
“I wasn’t so happy in St Petersburg before you visit me”, she tells us.
“But from August the 1st, everything changed.  I meet good people and good friends and now I think that life has got better.”
“That was the day of the eclipse”, I remind her.
“Yes, I know.  That’s why I had to tell you.  I think it changed something for me too.  It’s so good now.”
We share a long look in silence as we eat cheesecake and drink our coffee.  Lari and I decide to go souvenir shopping on Old Arbat St and let Alisha sleep for the afternoon.

It’s a fun mission and I collect gifts for my family and memorabilia for myself.  I come away with lacquer boxes, furry hats, matrioshka (the wooden Russian dolls that fit inside each other), t-shirts and postcards.  When I’m trying to pick the right matrioshka for my brother’s family I ask the shopkeeper,
“So what makes a good matrioshka?  If I was from a Russian family, what would I be looking for?”
She laughs at first, then says,
“They probably wouldn’t be looking for one so much.  But they used to be used to represent the family.  The outside layers would be the oldest members and with each new addition to the family another one would be made to fit inside.  The picture on the front would be a kind of cartoon portrait of the person.”
“So you’d have to change them over time?”
“I suppose so”.  She looks thoughtful for a minute, so I continue.
“So why are these ones only women looking much the same?”
“Well this one just traces the women in the family, the direct maternal line for as far back as you want to go.”

Back in Arbatskaya

Hot graffiti action..

I look at the other versions in different sizes and with a vast array of different combinations of picture style and content.  There’s one with more than twenty nested dolls, but it’s far too large and expensive.  Having satisfied my consumer drive, we return to the hotel.  On the way to the Smolenskaya Metro, I notice a young guy with a pet rat on his shoulder.  When he sees me taking a picture he puts his hand out for money with a smile on his face.  I know I won’t really need Russian money anymore, so I reach into my pocket and had him change and some notes,
“Buy beer for your friends”, I advise him in Russian.
He looks amused and confused, but thanks me with a smile and asks if I want to hold the rat.  I smile and wave goodbye.

I’ve told the Moscow Couchsurfers I’m back in town again and some of them come to meet us in a café-bar in the north of the city.  We arrive fashionably late and I apologise to Sasha the Siberian a lot.  I’m mostly in a daze.  I want someone to grab me and tell me I can just stay in Russia.  I want someone to make it possible, or even just suggest I do it and worry about consequences later.  I talk to Sasha about my visit to Novosibirsk and he’s very happy I tried the local beer they sell from kegs in the shops,
“When I first arrived in Moscow I looked for these shops for a month, but I can’t find them, they’re not here.  I want to go back to Novosibirsk again; I think I will move at the end of this year.”
I nod slowly in my daze.
“I want to go back there too”, I admit, “Right now would be good.”
I look deep into his eyes for a moment,
“You really love Russia don’t you?” he observes quizzically.

I don’t know how to answer that, it’s so fundamentally true as to defy explanation.

Lari and Ludmilla kicking it

“I think it was a man in Novosibirsk who caught the style of the people the best.  The rest of the world must get by with a dour face; devoid of expression.  A smile is only for your friends.”
Sasha the Siberian smiles at the thought.
“I think he’s right”, he says thoughtfully with a growing smile.
“The people, the place have taken my heart.  In everyone there is love, hate, mistrust, but somehow still an overwhelming friendliness.  I don’t know how else to say it.  The government I hate as much as any Russian, but the people are wonderful and so Australian.  Especially the Siberians!”
He turns his head sideways and considers this before smiling again,
“Maybe we are, I’m happy to be like Australians.”

Dealing with the heat

Alisha in her normal habitat

Alisha heads home early, not entirely comfortable with all the new people and the bustle of the bar, but I stay to talk with the other Couchsurfers until around midnight.  Lari changes trains on the way and I find myself suddenly saying goodbye to her in the middle of a crowded train station.
“See you in Australia then Lari….or maybe China next year.”
“I don’t know if I’ll make it to China, but let me know when you’re in town next and we’ll go for some vodkas.”
“Da da da da da, Tochna!”, I promise with a laugh.
She smiles and waves as she disappears into the crowd.

So I’m sitting atop one of the tallest buildings in the city admiring the night view and drinking a bottle of Dom Perignon with my beautiful Georgian man.  I’ve almost come to accept I must leave, so I’m now determined to remember my last night as being particularly amazing.  We talk about so many things, life in Russia, parts of the journey, where she will travel next and how to face your fears head-on.  They finally announce the bar is closing and we return to the room where I enjoy another double shower before packing my suitcase for the last time.
“Tell me I have to stay and miss my flight”, I ask Alisha, “My visa is still good for another two weeks, I could stay and….”
I don’t know how to finish the sentence and Alisha has no response either.  She wants to order some seafood from room service and I tell her to just do it.  I fall asleep quickly and awake early enough to make it to the airport.  Alisha has disappeared, she told me had to meet someone early, so I check out and let them arrange a car for me.

I somehow manage to go to the business class check-in counter where the woman isn’t doing anything, but she helps me anyway.
“Is there any chance I can have an aisle seat on a row in the centre at the back of the plane”, I venture hopefully.
She consults her computer for a minute and then replies,
“No problem, would you like me to block off the other seats in the row so you can lie down?”
“You would make this a perfect day if you can do that!” I exclaim.
She does indeed manage to get me a row all the way back to Australia.

Passing through passport control I’m worried they will pull me aside over something; probably for not being registered everywhere.  The woman looks at me, looks at the passport, types something into the computer then stamps the Russian visa page and hands it back to me with a smile.  I’m filled with relief that the problems with registration haven’t amounted to anything and I immediately message Don and Lari telling them the news. I’m sitting drinking a coffee an hour before my flight when I send a message to all my hosts and new friends across the country telling them I’m about to leave and thanking them for their part in making my Russian adventure the unforgettable time that it was.  I also add an open invitation to ask for my help should any of them want to visit Australia anytime. Up until I board the plane I wonder how soon I can manage to return to visit them all.  I still don’t want to leave, but I’ve switched to thinking about how soon I can return and spend more time here.  The flight is uneventful and I manage to sleep for a lot of it on my economy bed.

Arriving back in Australia  it seems to be a foreign country to me now.  The signs are in English, but I keep reading them as being Russian and get confused.

I don’t think my universe will ever be the same again.

This is the end


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