The Moscow Metro and the Russian ticket window women

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Victoria had told me about Novoslobodskaya Metro station, her favourite of all of these works of indulgent art and wealth; created by Stalin to show how prosperous and happy communist Russia was.  So the only issue with my plan to visit a bunch of the more opulent ones is navigating the metro system itself.  Acquiring some Metro tokens is no real problem; holding up ten fingers gets you the ten trip pass.  The real challenge for anyone who doesn’t read Russian is to find where you’re going.  If you can’t read Cyrillic letters at the very least, you are doomed to spend a phenomenal amount of time lost and confused, hoping that someone passing by will speak English and help you.  Or worse, you are condemned to spend your time following around tour guides getting the diluted official version of the place.  Thankfully my preparation worked fantastically (for once) and I found the whole Metro system incredibly cheap, efficient and easy to use.

Entering any station you notice at the bottom of every escalator that there is a middle aged woman sitting in a tiny booth looking eternally up the moving stairs.  I’m not entirely sure why they are there, perhaps to take action if something breaks or watch for people causing trouble.  However, I think this must be one of the most demoralising and soul destroying jobs I’ve ever encountered.  They don’t even get to talk to anyone, just sit staring at the escalators as everybody else moves past them, leaving them as a little island of loneliness in the city. 

                        Novoslobodskaya Metro                  ‘Dude, we can really put the O in Moscow now’

In any case, there is no way anyone can do justice to the Moscow Metro stations in words.  I had seen pictures of them before, which prompted my afternoon’s plans, but in real life they are much more overwhelmingly sumptuous.  I feel like I’ve accidentally stumbled into someone’s mansion and I keep expecting a butler to appear and usher me quietly outside lest the police become involved.  Novoslobodskaya isn’t at the top of the list in every guidebook; but it should be.  I have to agree with Victoria, the stained glass windows give it a different and nicer feel to the other more famous stations.  Visiting Moscow without spending an afternoon exploring these glorious stations would be like visiting Egypt and not bothering to see the pyramids.

On leaving Kievskaya station I decide I should try to acquire my ticket to get to St Petersburg next week.  Victoria had told me about a business centre where they spoke English and written down what I wanted in Russian for me.  However, there is nothing you can do that will prepare you for your journey into the world of the Russian train ticket window women.  The ticket windows are manned solely by disinterested middle aged women who clearly feel that talking to people who want tickets is something akin to removing leeches from their groinal region.  It’s something you have to do for your own good, but the experience is largely distasteful and slightly painful.  It takes twenty minutes of essentially circling the buildings and diving into every door to finally find the ‘Бизнес центр’ (business centre) sign, tucked away to the left of one of the entrances.  The queue is short, only a few people.  Filled with optimism I approach the counter and ask, in Russian, if she speaks English.  She simply replies ‘Nyet’.  I ask if anyone speaks English, looking at the other women serving and receive another emphatic ‘Nyet’.  She looks at me like I’m a particularly troublesome leech she can’t quite disengage from feeding on her valuable blood.  I begin to wonder if the training for this job largely involves standing in one of those booths at the bottom of the escalators for twenty years; building up the kind of hateful resentment required to provide the correct service level.  I show her the note that Victoria had written for me.  I point at the sentence saying ‘Mozhna’, which means ‘Can I?” or “Is it possible?”.  She looks at it and then gives me an exasperated look putting her hands in the air and rolling her eyes.  I say goodbye and wander towards an information desk I’d seen that had English signs on it.

Whilst the two men there are trying to be as helpful as they can, the older man speaks no English and the younger man speaks about as much English as I speak Russian.  So we establish we’re all fine, it’s a sunny day and Moscow is a beautiful city.  I then ask, in English,
“Is there anyone here that speaks English to help me buy a ticket?”  After finally understanding the question, he shakes his head and says, in Russian,
“I don’t know”.  I stare at him, the floor, the wall and the ceiling for a minute before bidding him farewell and wander into the general purpose ticket window area.  Perhaps one of the women here will speak English for some reason and I just have to find the right window.  I stand in the middle of the area for a while looking at all the windows trying to decide who looks the most like they speak English, before realising this is another exercise in pointlessness.  If the women in the business centre don’t speak any English, why would someone in the normal windows be any different?

So with this in mind, I start walking up to friendly looking strangers and ask, in Russian, if they speak any English.  I have no idea how many people I ask that question, but it becomes a strange game for me.  I start picking people based on the colour of their shoes.  Then I only choose young people for a while, then only old people.  Then I start choosing young, beautiful Russian women and realise I’m getting distracted from the task at hand.  I check the time and discover I’ve just spent an hour in one of Moscow’s busiest Metro stations without making a single step of progress to acquiring a ticket.  I need a new strategy.  I realise I have an ace up my sleeve, so I send an SMS to another local couchsurfer I’ve been talking to online begging him for help.  Nikolai calls me back with laughter in his voice asking me,
“Are you seriously trying to deal with the ticket window women in a station?”
“Well, I thought I’d make some attempt.  I’ve got the train I want written down in Russian on a piece of paper here.” 
“They are bad enough when you’re Russian!! Real Soviet days service from the women who have done only this job their whole life.  I will be near Red Square at five.  Come and meet me there at the statue of the guy on horseback and I’ll arrange it for you”.
I already know that statue, so I thank him profusely and vow to buy him some drinks at the earliest possible occasion.
“You know there’s a Couchsurfing meetup at Krisis Zhanre on Friday night? ..it’s a live music bar the local Couchsurfers are normally visit then”, he tells me.
“Yar, I saw that on the forum, I’ll definitely be there!…and see you soon”, I reply happily.  When I meet him he manages in a few minutes with a couple of questions what I couldn’t manage in one frustrating hour.  He does take me to an agent in the street rather than a window in a train station.  Apparently this is the trick to avoid queues and get better service.  I hand over my passport details and money to the ticket woman and the deal is done. 

I meander my way slowly back to my hotel, wondering if the Trans-Siberian train tickets have arrived; I told the agency to send all of them to my hotel today.  I, and my two friends who will join me in St Petersburg, all ordered them online to guarantee we get the trains we want during the very busy summer season.  As I approach the counter I feel the first pangs of worry as they search and discover that the tickets are conspicuously absent from the hotel.  I immediately jump on the closest computer and send an email asking the agency what they’re doing.  We still have almost two weeks before we actually need them, but I start trying to think what I’ll say to my friends….
“Yeah funny thing about the tickets….you know how we spent all that money to get them in advance to guarantee seats?  Well it turns out the guy has no address and doesn’t feel like giving us any tickets….or our money….no please put down the knife, I’m still going to need my kidneys…oh really?  You can sell one?  Okay then…take the left one, I never liked it as much”. 
I return to my room and watch Russian pop music for a while before I turn it off and slide into an uneasy sleep filled with dreams of kidneys competing for prizes on a reality TV show.

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