Tuesday, October 23, 2007

10/3 Where the #@!& am I???

I left Paris early morning of 10/3 for Moscow to visit Marika. Moscow wasn't on my original list of places to visit but since I had a friend who lives in the city, it seemed like a good opportunity. Two days before I left Paris, Marika informed me that she would be in London until early Saturday morning. Though I was disappointed that we would only have the weekend to see each other, realistically with her schedule, I probably wouldn't have seen that much of her during the week anyway. And I figured I could join a tour group in Red Square and see the sights on my own. Marika arranged for a car to pick me up at the airport and a friend to meet me at her apartment so it seemed easy enough. But it wasn't and thus began my adventures in Moscow, or what I call a series of unfortunate events.

After waiting for nearly an hour while dodging aggressive cabbies and being unsuccessful at buying a phone card, I hopped in a taxi and made my way to Marika's. Since Marika lives in an apartment building, I pictured meeting her friend in the main lobby. I suppose it was presumptuous for me to think that Russia operates like the rest of the world. Turns out addresses in Moscow include slashes (i.e. 215/1 Main Street) and since the info I had didn't, the cab driver left me at what he thought was the right building. This was after winding down some side streets. Apartment buildings in Moscow don't have main lobbies. In fact, the front of the building looks like the back. To an outsider, there's nothing indicating an entrance. So I sat outside that building for a while since I had a huge duffel bag and a backpack. When it was clear no one was looking for me, I began my 2.5 hour trek around the neighborhood. I had transcribed Marika's address into Cyrillic and asked a couple of people who told me I was at the right location or pointed back to the building from which I came. I dragged my duffel around and around and back and forth a central area. Most people were indifferent while some looked on with sympathy, or what I like to think was sympathy. When I got tired of playing the reoccurring contestant in the "One of these things is not like the others" game, I gave up and walked onto the main boulevard. A woman stopped me, pointed at my bag and gave me a big explanation in Russian which I took to be, "You're not supposed to be on this street. Clearly you're lost." She pointed to a sign that looked like "Apartments" in Cyrillic and went on her way. Again, no main lobby but I did find a sign that I guessed to be the apartment numbers included in the building. I waited outside the one with Marika's apartment number, hoping that her friend would be on the look out. No such luck. At this point, it was starting to get dark and when it became clear that a rescue party was not going to appear, I had to find a place to spend the night. Since I had no idea where I was, it was a little difficult to orient myself so I could set off in the right direction. Taxis don't really do street pick ups in Moscow but I figured I could find one at a transportation depot. I remembered passing a train station on the way to Marika's so I headed in that direction. As I walked, I found what I thought was an internet cafe but the woman just yelled at me in Russian when I tried to pay. It was then that I wished I never left Paris.

As I dragged my duffel bag through the crowded streets, I was trying to plan what I would do once I got into a cab. How do I find a hotel? Should I go back to the airport where I saw a chain hotel? Where the fuck am I?

Just when I thought I could not take any more of the confusion and frustration, I walked through construction scaffolding and heaven appeared across the street. Hallelujah! I was saved. And my savior's name was the Sheraton Palace Hotel.

Moscow was recently named the most expensive city in the world. Hotel room fees are astronomical but I would have paid an arm and a leg at that point. I got a nice room with a plush king size bed and ordered in dinner. After phoning Marika in London, we arranged for her friend to pick me up the next evening at the hotel. To give you an idea of how things are done in Russia, the cost of the 20 minute call to London was double that of my dinner, which included a bottle of Kressmann Bordeaux. I went to bed hoping that this day was just a fluke.

I want to say that at no point during this experience did I think I was in danger. I didn't fear that someone would try to rob or attack me. And as I was walking around and around, I thought back to when I went to Seoul for the first time on my own for my junior year abroad. Poor planning had me landing at night and while I took Korean language lessons, I was a true beginner. The taxi driver couldn't find his way to the international dormitory and out of frustration, he dropped me off on the main street. The only store I could see was a bakery that had just closed. I had no idea where I was or in which direction I should set off. Fortunately, the first person I stopped spoke English. Not only did this man help me drag my bag up the hill to the dorm, he explained who I was to the security guards who didn't speak English and made sure I was safely in my room before leaving. To a lesser degree but like this kind man, the woman in Moscow who stopped me and pointed out the sign for the apartment building proved my belief that when they can, people want to be of help. When they can't, like the taxi driver in Seoul and the crazy internet lady in Moscow, reactions are universal. First, they yell in their language even though you clearly can't understand. Then they ask themselves why you're so stupid and how they got themselves into this mess. And, finally, they throw their hands up and leave. Or ignore you until you leave, in the internet lady's case.

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