Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Stories from Russia: My Most Recent Trip (and Hopefully Not My Last)!

I love Russia.  I love the place, in all its vastness.  I love the people.  I love the history.  I love the culture.  Recently I’ve found myself missing the Russian experience, thinking back on previous trips and my two years there as a missionary.  Every year I read a handful of books, both non-fiction and fiction, that deal with the country.  Russian domestic and foreign politics grab my attention on a regular basis.

As part of my effort to assuage my pains of nostalgia, I feel compelled to write down some of my memorable and favorite experiences from Russia.  Most of these will be humorous in nature, although on occasion I may decide to write about the more profound.

Rather than start from the beginning, I think I’ll share some experiences from my last visit.  In February of 2010 I went on a work trip for the Air Force Academy.  For this trip I was lucky enough to travel with a good friend and colleague Brett Huyser.  Our trip took us to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev.  The purpose was to visit with the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and to look at semester abroad options for cadets.

A quick word or two about Brett is in order.  Brett is a graduate of the Air Force Academy.  While there he played offensive line for the football team and went onto play a few seasons in the arena league.  He is big and tall, kind of difficult to look past in public.  In terms of language, he studied Chinese at the Academy and after graduation.  He went to Russia with me with no skills in the language, relying on me to keep him safe and well fed.

Our visit to Moscow was largely uneventful, although we made the most of it.  We flew into Domodedovo Airport, the same one that would be the target of a suicide bomber just year later where at least 35 people were killed.  On the way out we found a willing taxi driver to take us to our hotel near the center of the city. 

Following a quick dinner at the famous Yolki Palki restaurant chain, we walked over the Big Stone Bridge to the walls of the Kremlin and took an evening stroll around Red Square.  For a February night, it wasn’t too cold, actually kind of pleasant.  We didn’t spend much time out that evening, but we did manage to get a picture of Brett appearing to take care of some business next to a historical and cultural landmark that shall remain unnamed.  The highlight of the evening, for me, was introducing Brett to the wonders of a Russian Shokoladnitsa, a chocolate house.  The selection of cocoa or a true hot chocolate is always challenging, especially on a cool night.  I believe that night I went with the hot cocoa and a tasteful chocolate pastry.

St. Basils Cathedral on Red Square

The next day we made a quick trip to the U.S. Embassy.  It took us longer to get in than our actual visit lasted.  Our visit was limited to the embassy annex.  Before our late night train trip to St. Petersburg, we ran back over to Red Square for a tour of the National History Museum.  Some of our time, back on the square, was spent browsing the souvenir kiosks.  They had some nice port-a-potties behind some of the kiosks, with the name brand Toi-Toi written in Anglicized letters.  Both Brett and I made use of the facilities.  (This fact will be relevant later in the story.)  Of course, on our way off Red Square we stopped by the shokoladnitsa one more time.

Our ride on the express train to St. Petersburg was smooth even though a train along the same route had been derailed with a bomb just a few months prior, killing 25 people.  As luck would have it our late night arrival into St. Petersburg coincided with the coldest winter in over 20 years and neither of us were prepared.  Luckily we were in a nice hotel right on Nevsky Prospekt.

The next day was bitterly cold and uncomfortable as we visited St. Petersburg State University and the St. Petersburg Polytechnic Institute.  On the way to our first stop, with the temperature at -25 degrees Celsius and a strong wind, we had to stop to buy Brett a souvenir scarf to keep him alive.  At the end of the day, in the afternoon, we found another shokoladnitsa.  This one was even more amazing than the one on Red Square. 

As we entered the shokoladnitsa the three or four young girls working there immediately appeared nervous or excited that two foreigners had just walked through the door on a cold winter day.  I tried to reassure them, using my excellent Russian skills, that serving us would not be a problem.  When I opened my mouth, however, it was too cold to make much more of a sound than a low moan.  One of them, using her broken English, told us to sit and to please wait just a few minutes.  Just as we sat down a young, pretty Russian girl, perhaps 19 or 20 years old came bursting through the door.  The others quickly grabbed her, pulled her behind the counter and whispered to her pointing to us.  My initial assumption that I shared with Brett was that their English-speaking colleague had just arrived. 

After hanging up her coat and putting on her apron, she skipped over to our table with a huge smile.  Expecting her to speak English, I was surprised when she asked us in Russian where we were from.  I confirmed we were from the States and we told in which states we grew up.  Once she took our order she came back to ask us more questions.  She quickly guessed, based on our haircuts and demeanor, that we were associated with the military.  While sitting there she shared the story of her boyfriend who had just gone into the Russian Army and some of her fears and concerns.

Once our drinks (real hot chocolate for me this time, the melted down drinking chocolate) and desserts arrived, she continued to check in on us, mothering over us because we shared the burden of military service with loved one.  It was a very pleasant end to a cold day.

This trip was also memorable because it occurred during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.  I had a great time watching the Olympics from the Russian perspective.  That evening in my hotel room I became a fan of the Russian Women’s Curling Team.  It was fun to watch them compete while listening to the commentary on the local stations.

Russian Women's Olympic Curling Team

The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Leaving our hotel that night for dinner, I fell behind Brett for a moment or two.  Looking up I noticed he had a lady standing next to him at the intersection speaking with him.  I hurried up to make sure everything was okay.  As I reached them another lady joined us.  In thickly accented English they were asking if we had plans for the night.  Brett, always quick to catch on, looked back and forth between the two of them and laughed, quickly discouraging them from continuing their sales pitch.

That evening I took Brett out for some Georgian cuisine.  It’s hard to beat a meal of kharcho (walnut and beef soup), khachapuri (cheese bread with beans or egg on top), and kebabs.  National and cultural cuisines are a highlight of traveling, or can be if you get the good stuff.

Our next day was free for some local exploring.  Feeling brave we decided to walk the length of Nevskii Prospekt from our hotel to the Hermitage Museum.  Once again it was bitterly cold…bitterly cold.  We stopped in a few stores on the way to capture a bit of warmth.  Eventually we reached the courtyard in front of the Hermitage.  It was a big, wide-open space unprotected from the gusting wind.  The distance, perhaps just over a hundred yards was daunting given the conditions, but we pressed on heads down and shoulders hunched.  As we reached the stairs of the Hermitage we were amused to find a gentleman selling shapkas, the famous Russian fur hats.  Had he been on the far side of the courtyard where we began our walk, we may have purchased one.

Stepping into the entrance of the Hermitage, feeling the warmth was amazing after the cold walk.  Originally our plan was to spend a couple of hours at the Hermitage, catching a few highlights, before heading back out to see some other sites.  It was so nice to be in the warmth that we spent over four hours in the museum, checking out as much as possible before stepping back out into the cold.    

Leaving the Hermitage, we put our heads down and walked the couple of miles toward our hotel as quickly as we could.  I looked up as we were approaching our hotel and noticed that we were in front of our shokoladnitsa.  Tapping Brett on the shoulder I pointed it out and we dived through the door.  We must have looked like frozen fish.  Our friend, the young lady from the day before, was on duty.  Seeing us she leapt into action.  She sat us in front of a heater, turning the vents toward us.  Helping us take off our coats, she offered each of us a wool blanket.  We were quick to accept the offer.  At that point, I wish we had asked someone to take a picture of us, huddled up in blanket, looking cold and miserable in a Russian shokoladnitsa with our young Russian mother looking over us.

From St. Petersburg we flew to Kiev, Ukraine to visit with our cadets attending the Nova Mova Language School.  Over three year period I had become great friends with Gela and Andriy, the two owners and administrators of the school.  While at the school we celebrated Soviet Army Day with them, receiving a nice t-shirt and the highlight for Brett, kisses from each of the wonderful ladies that work at the school.  Brett wanted to tell them that the American tradition involved a second round of kisses.

Independence Square--Kiev, Ukraine.  This is the view from our hotel.

Our last night in Kiev, we went into a shopping center to visit another shokoladnitsa.  Brett moved ahead of me saying he needed to find a restroom.  I asked if he needed help, but he said he was fine on his own. 

He walked directly ahead to a young man working at one of the stores, and with perfect confidence, he asked, “Toi-Toi?  Toi-Toi?” 

Based on the brand name of the outhouses in on Red Square in Moscow he had assumed the Russian word for toilet was toi-toi.  The young man, looking confused stared at Brett for a few seconds before realizing he was asking for the bathroom, quickly pointed, feeding Brett’s perception that he was using the language correctly.

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