First impressions in Moscow…


“I’ll meet you at the big cow outside Moo-Moo”, Victoria tells me over the phone.
I amble my way back to the bovine statue and it makes me smile again. She will be my first couchsurfing host in Russia, but that will happen in a few days. Today she has volunteered to show me some of the city. I don’t know how to best describe the bundle of focussed energy we call Victoria. Beautiful Eurasian looks, black hair and a cheeky smile is a good start.
“Welcome to Russia!” she exclaims happily. She has a wonderful Russian accent on her flawless English and a vibrant energy that never dulls. I think if she wasn’t doing something at any given moment it’s possible her heart would stop; which would be a terrible waste of such a warm one.
“What do you have in mind for today?”, she asks brightly.
“I’ve just been wandering in Arbat, drinking in the feeling of the streets, the people, the signs, the smells of the city….”
I look around me again slowly; absorbing the place.
“Okay, Davai davai”, she exclaims, then walks off along the paved street.
‘Davai’ generally means ‘let’s go’ and is a great word to motivate people to move.
“We’ll walk this way and I’ll show you some of the good places.”
We start walking and almost immediately she points out a small stand on the side of the street that looks like its selling beer from a single tap.
“Have you had kvas yet?”
“Oh no…I’ve read about it like beer?”
“Not really and not much alcohol in it at all, it’s sweeter. You should get some later”, she advises as we walk towards the centre of the city.

She leads me past a small pavement shop that has a huge sign promising audio and video goods, but is actually selling hotdogs and chips. I smile and notice more fully the ever present small shops on the pavements of most streets. They are effectively self contained rooms the size of a small caravan with a tiny window in one side for the occupant to sell a variety of products to anyone passing by. Normally it’s all about snack food and soft drinks, beer and cigarettes. So when you need a beer to carry you through a long walk, or a lemonade to brighten your morning, you only have to stop for a moment.

On the way to Red Square we pass a gold hypermarket that a number of spruikers are advertising and she points at it with disdain.
“It is cheap, but not very good and not much gold in anything.”
We walk alongside the wall of the Kremlin for a while and then through Alexander Gardens.
“When they first planted out huge flower gardens like these around Moscow in the nineties, everyone picked them all on a nightly basis. Nobody expected they would stay for long, so they made the most of it. It took years and a lot of guards before people left them alone.”
We round a corner past a huge statue of some guy on a horse to be greeted by the twin towers of the resurrection gate to Red Square. There is a huge bronze disc on the ground that Victoria says marks the zero point of the Russian highway system. There are people standing in the middle of it throwing coins behind them.
“If you stand there and throw come coins away behind you while you make a wish it will come true”, she advises me.
The gates house the Iberian chapel and an important Russian Orthodox religious icon within it. It is this icon that holds the wish-granting power. I look at the long line of people all waiting for their chance to be in the centre of the disc and decide I’m not very interested in queuing, so we pass through the gateway arches and into Red Square.

It is a vast, open expanse of ancient cobblestoned parade ground, punctuated around its edges by iconic Russian buildings. We’re strolling past Lenin’s tomb, then looking at the ГУМ (pronounced ‘goom’) department store and checking the time in the clock face of the Saviour’s tower as we walk down one side of the Kremlin walls towards the amazingly colourful and exuberant onion domes of St Basil’s cathedral. It is a showcase and museum of Russian history and architecture. A part of Moscow life for five hundred years, it has hosted markets and celebrations, witnessed invasions and reclamations and been the location of official pronouncements of the Tsars and soviet officials. Russia’s first public library and university had their homes around this square and the Great Patriotic War (World War Two) started and finished here for Russia with a military parade. My previous memories and experience of this spot mostly involve seeing video of the May 9th Victory Day military parades. These are the ones featuring a vast array of military posturing overseen by dour looking officials in thick coats and furry hats. This is probably why my first reaction to the place is,
“Hmmm…I was expecting something bigger”.

Transcending the initial disappointment of a child’s impressions melting away doesn’t take long. I’m also completely failing to listen properly to Victoria’s calm voice telling me about the place. The domes of St Basil’s really have me captured now. The rainbow of colours across the domes has always struck me as pointlessly excessive in exactly the way I love. Seeing them first hand makes me smile like a little boy given his first crayons. However, what I had never appreciated so much before is the different textures of the domes. Each one has its own style and running your eyes across them feels like a strange kind of massage. I find myself following the spiral swirl of the green and gold one thinking it would make a great brand of Australian soft serve ice-cream. The green and red one with raised pyramids across its surface would make a phenomenal back scratcher, whilst the raised yellow diamonds between the green lines of another would make a great massage tool. Perhaps the blue and white smooth curved one in the middle could be fitted with a small motor and used by lonely Russian women to provide happiness during the long winter nights.
St Basil’s Home entertainment centre

She leads me into ГУМ with a warm smile, saying we have to look at this one shop.  The interior of the section we’re in is laid out like a series of market stalls.  She leads me to one of the stands, at the corner of which are large conical glass containers, suspended in the air by metal stands and filled with fruit juice.
“One of my strongest and happiest memories of childhood was coming to shops like this with my mother, getting a glass of juice and then moving on through the day.  It wasn’t an opportunity to stop, just a brief pause for refreshment whilst passing through”, she explains. 
Then she pauses to look at me quizzically, wondering if I’m really listening.  I think I’m still largely absorbing this curious new world.
“How do I get a glass?…and what kinds are there? Do you want one?”, I ask, suddenly wanting to share that experience. 
“No, I’m fine but you should get one”. 
She darts over to another counter to buy a ticket from a bored looking girl standing there.  She returns and soon another bored girl is pouring a paper cup of this sweet blackberry syrup for my delectation.  It is indeed, cold, sweet and refreshing and makes an interesting counterpoint to the coffee shop we arrive at a few minutes later.

My first real test on reading a Russian menu is a rollercoaster ride of comprehension.  I can understand the choice of coffee on offer as most are the same Italian words we use in English, but spelled with Russian letters.  However, I can’t make the word for cappuccino appear before me and ask her,
“Is there cappuccino here?”
She frowns and points to it.
“Do you need everything translated?” 
The moment she points at it, I read it perfectly and wonder how I missed it.  I explain how I spent eight months beating my head against the wall of the Russian language and had got as far as reading newspaper articles with the heavy assistance of a dictionary and some grammar notes – and a lot of time.  She works teaching English and Russian to private students, so understands me well.

We drift out and back towards Arbatskaya, then stop suddenly in the street as she points up to a second floor balcony that is filled with classic bird nest boxes.  Apparently the owner is a bit of a Moscow icon for having these pigeon boxes, each one hand painted with small dots.  An old man sits calmly on a milk crate on the balcony with his side to the street and glances down at us briefly.  I leave Victoria near where we met at the crazy cow and wonder how to best engage the Russian capital.


2 comments to First impressions in Moscow…

  • Karel Malan

    Loved the part about the Ice cream cones, back scratchers and motorised thingamajigs.

  • seberyag

    Dhugal, damn it! How perfectly realistic this all is written here! Being born in Novosibirsk I had the same impression about the Red Square in childhood. Was really amazed by how small it is. And these onion domes… Hell yeah, it's all true. BTW did you try that soft serve ice-cream in ГУМ? :)

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