First Couchsurfing in Russia

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I’ve been walking for just ten minutes dragging my suitcase through the streets of Moscow and already I’m lost. I printed out the directions Victoria gave me to find her apartment building, but correlating the map and the reality before me seems impossible.

I think I’m on Victoria’s street, I’ve tried to follow her directions about archways and building numbers and after another ten minutes of walking around the area not being sure what building I’m in front of, I have to call her. Russian apartment buildings have a strange logic of their own, which is worse since I’m not used to navigating within any kind of large apartment building development. Like most Australians, I’ve always lived in houses or small blocks of flats. These arrangements of huge rectangular monoliths, dropped on the landscape like Tetris bricks, baffle me. I can’t say there was ever a clear development strategy for their placement and since Tetris was written by a Russian, perhaps it was originally designed to assist with this process. In any case, it takes another few minutes on the phone to establish that I am close to her apartment block, but on the wrong side of it and at the next building. This being rectified, I see her waving at me from her balcony a minute later.

Russian apartments are deceptive creatures. I think the maintenance schedule on them finished at some point twenty or thirty years ago, so it’s normal for them to look incredibly run down. The elevators are genuine seventies (or maybe earlier) technology, with hard buttons that stay in and pop out when you reach the floor. I often find myself saying a quiet prayer whilst moving in them and sometimes take the stairs down for…ummm…the exercise. Victoria is standing in her doorway with her huge smile warming the whole building. She closes the vast and heavy outer door behind me and turns the deadlock closed. This is always where the outside of the buildings, right up to the apartment doorway, give way to a routinely lovely interior. It’s quite normal for every outer door to be different or customised in some way; it’s the first taste you have of the personalities living within. Victoria shares the two bedroom apartment with another woman and ushers me first into her bedroom to leave my suitcase and then to the kitchen for some tea. The Russians have a permanent affair with this drink; it’s everywhere. She tells me she has a student coming soon and it’s quite normal for them to be in and out all day. Sometimes she meets them somewhere else too, so I will have to check with her to find when I can get back into the apartment later.
“I’m just planning to be out wandering in the city again today. Is there anything else you think I should check out?”
“The Novedevichy Convent has the most beautiful cathedral, you have to see it! The graveyard next door is interesting too, but the convent is wonderful.”
The way she looks when she speaks about the convent tells me I absolutely have to visit. The graveyard next to the Convent is the resting place of more famous Russians than you could poke a tree at whilst suffering some kind of spasmodic fit and I already plan to visit Boris Yeltsin’s grave there.
“Oh and I should warn you about Russian beers too”, she continues.
I look up with absolute interest, exploring the beers here is definitely on my agenda.
“You can get the European ones you already know, but they’re all made inside Russia and they’re all terrible. The only good ones are the real Russian beers like Baltika and Nevskoy.”
I nod sagely and try to commit everything to memory. Well the bit about staying off European beers anyway, this aligns perfect with my evil plans for Russian beery mayhem.

As Victoria starts to become absorbed in her laptop and work, I move back to her bedroom to sort out my suitcase and sleeping gear. She has laid out a thin foam mattress with blankets and a sheet. I’ve also brought a compact air mattress, not the self-inflating foam type; a real one with long tubes that fill with air to lift you about three centimetres off the floor. It rolls down to the same size as the compact, ultra-thin sleeping bag I brought to match it, so I put all that together to form a very comfortable corner of her room. As I prepare my small backpack for a day of wandering, I remember she has a plate of chocolate biscuits on her kitchen table. In the interests of spreading a little Australian culture I happen to have packets of Tim Tams with me to share the joy of a Tim Tam Slam with my hosts. This is when you bite off diagonally opposite corners and use the resulting creation as a straw in a cup of hot coffee. The result is the coffee melts the inside of the biscuit, giving you a few seconds from the moment you feel the coffee reach your lips, to when you must place the whole biscuit in your mouth and luxuriate in a foodgasm. The chocolate shell of the biscuit only lasts a short time after the rest has dissolved, so if you’re too slow it will cover your hands in sticky, chocolatey napalm. The molten coffee, chocolate, sugar and wafers create an altogether addictive experience. So I explain all this to Victoria as I hand her a packet to try it with. I also find myself picking up a glass to fill with water from the tap before stopping myself again.
“Can you drink this water?” I ask, pointing to the tap.
“No. Not at all. You must boil that first, you can’t drink the water in any Russian city.” Thus informed, I put down the glass and resolve to buy more bottled water when I’m out during the day.
“There’s a bottle in the fridge if you want some now”, Victoria adds.
“Thanks! Are you coming along to the Couchsurfing meetup tonight?” I ask hopefully while drinking a glass.
“I won’t be able to make it, but you should definitely go and meet more of the local guys”
“When should I be back here?”
“It doesn’t matter, really. You can be out until all hours, just give me a quick ring and I’ll let you back in the apartment when you want”. I feel a little surprised and happy, she had written this on her profile on the website, but it’s always good to hear it. I’m especially glad she’s happy with the kind of random wanderings I specialise in.
“Wow! Thanks for that, but I should be back before midnight I think. When does the Metro close?”
“Midnight’s fine, I’m normally awake past then anyway. Last trains are around one in the morning.”
“Thanks again, I’m so happy you’re relaxed about it.”
“Don’t worry, I know what it’s like to travel, you never quite know what’s going to happen and I like to party all night sometimes too! …but on Saturday morning the cleaner comes and you’ll have to be out of here for a few hours starting at ten.”
“No worries, I’ll catch you tonight!”
“I hope you enjoy Moscow!”

After watching Victoria’s lips during the conversation I begin my fascination with how russians speak. They have the most amazingly agile lips. This provides a curious juxtaposition of happy activity within a usually stern, dour face.
She breaks the standard russian look with her smile and waves me goodbye with her free hand, the other still holding the cup of tea. With her words and smile in my head I wander into the warm streets. I’m feeling the sun on my back again and wondering if anyone will believe it’s hot enough for me to be working up a sweat just walking through the Russian capital.

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4 comments to First Couchsurfing in Russia

  • Yee Xin

    Can I know the email address to ask abt courchsurfing in Russia? :) thx

  • Donat Paulin

    I am from Canada and I always said that one day I will visit Russia. Just wondering if couchsurfing in Russia is fairly new and do you get good response from Russian people….thanks

    • dhugalf

      Couchsurfing in Russia was fairly new when I was there in 2009, but there were already small communities in most cities I visited. I haven’t kept a close eye on it in the last couple of years, but you can always jump on the site and do some searches to find out…

      I managed to find a host in every city I visited and all of them were amazing. Russian hospitality is generous and open – we always felt at home with these lovely people. The experience was so profound it made me write this book about it.

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