Monday, January 23, 2006

Day 9 - Road to Moscow

Day 9, Road to Moscow - And so we find ourselves waking early, calling a taxi, and heading back to the Yaroslavl Train Station. I should have gotten a better picture of it, as it is I only have photos of the chandeliers inside the building. Anyway, we are on our way back to Moscow via a slow train, riding Platzkart. This trip was a bit more crowded than our last short trip to Rostov and the train was less hot and humid. But the dirt remained just the same. The passengers were mostly all dressed in clothes this morning also, although we were riding the same train and time as our last short trip via platzkart to Rostov V. One passenger across from us ate some hot noodles (cooked with water from the Titan) and immediately decided to climb up on the bunk and go to sleep. This prompted Katja to cite a Russia saying about eating and sleeping. Now I have eaten, and it is time to sleep. Now I have slept and it is time to eat. There was an older man and woman who sat next to us on the trip. They seemed rather nice and had that air of dignity of which Katja has made me so aware. The man had a shirt, sweater, and sort of tweedy blazer on, with a rather light coat. His coat was no heavier than my Carhartt jacket, which was criticized by Sergei as not being heavy enough. He was quite concerned for my health, wearing such a coat. I mentioned this to Katja, but she did remind me that the old man was Russian and used to the cold. I guess my frail American physique can not possibly deal with the real Russian winter. Of course, I wasn't there during this latest cold snap, and I understand it is the unpredictability of Russian winter weather that prompted them to be so concerned for my choice in clothing. My coat did not have fur inside and neither did my boots (we'll have a later discussion of these Russian dress shoes with fur inside) ... so in their eyes I was I'll prepared with my wool-lined canvas Carhartt jacket. The train ride was ... boring as hell. Occasionally a much faster train going the other way would pass (VVOOOOSHHHH! and our train would shake ... who rides THOSE trains? Why can't we get a train like that!?) We didn't bring a big insulated picnic bag, as I observed others on the train using. One woman traveling with her daughter (they both had identically dyed dark purplish red hair ... not lovely) had such a basket. They were prepared for a real feast, she even had a nice table cloth and cutlery, salads, fruit, pickles, meats, cheese, bread. This is rather typical of the Russian train riding experience. Others ate noodles and instant mashed potatoes (a small and chubby girl near us was eating both of these and more ... Katja criticized her father for feeding her too much). This reminds me of prior discussions I had with Katja and others regarding women and body image in the USA. My girl Yana in Harrisburg had remarked that since coming to the US from Moscow in 2003, she had not noticed so much that American men are bigger than Russian men ... but she had really noticed at how American women are much bigger (fatter) than Russian women. I had pointed out that I think lots of this stems from the idea that has permeated America in the last 20 years, that if you tell a young girl not to eat something, that you will harm her body image and she will become a starving bulemic or anorexic teenager. Media reports of young women trying to make themselves look like "unnatural" models, starving themselves, leading to health problems and such ... have made the mothers of America very reluctant to tell their daughters not to have another ham sandwich. In fact, if I were in a public restaurant and heard to tell my 9-year old daughter not to eat something or to not have another dessert because she is becoming chubby ... I would get glares and remarks from women who overheard or saw this. To the surprise of many Russians, the news media constantly tells Americans that for a woman, being a bit large is the normal and natural body-type. Plus size women's models are not considered large, but are considered to be more reflective of what a woman's body really is like. American women rejoice in news stories that remind people that at one time, large women were considered more beautiful (Rubenesque). Russian women who visit the US are surprised that they can't find any clothes that fit them (everything is too big). American women glare and make catty remarks to Russian women who are slender and wear tight clothes (as Yana and others I have spoken to can vouch for). In Russia for a woman to wear size 0, 2, 4, or 6 is normal. In the US this is definitely considered small ... to the point of being unhealthy. I can't say which body image is correct ... except that I KNOW that being obese is a health problem, it is a problem in the US, and both men and women in this country would be well-served to eat smaller portions and to get out and walk more. The differences in attitudes towards body image is most pronounced in regards to women in Russia and the US and I thought it was worth mentioning. I am fully expecting to get lambasted for this part of this post. Have mercy on me, oh women of America ... who are preparing to open up a can of whup-ass on me, citing medical research, Body Mass Index (BMI), and other data to tell me that my remarks are marching our young women towards sure Bulemic shock. Amen. So back to the trip ... our slow train to Moscow. One interesting discovery that I made on the train ride .. the toilets on Russian trains just empty onto the tracks below. Basically you can even see the train tracks passing by underneath when you flush. The conductor for our wagon announced he was closing the toilets in 20 minutes (once we came to be near Moscow .. about an hour before our arrival time). The reason, of course ... is to not dump raw sewage near where more people are living. Of course, this restriction wasn't enforced during the majority of the trip, so small places such as Yaroslavl and Rostov Veliky .... can get as much raw sewage as train-riding rumps can create. I told Katja that I was glad that her parents home wasn't too close to the train tracks! The train took a good thirty minutes to actually stop in Moscow ... going slowly, slowly, slooowwwly to ...... an .......... eventual ......................... stop. Many braking events over those last thirty minutes gave our bones a good shake. I hadn't noticed such delayed and harsh braking when we stopped briefly for my last good-bye to Sergei and Natasha in Rostov the Great, but apparently this is required in Moscow. I had thought perhaps there is some maximum speed limits for trains within the city limits ... but it didn't seem as if our express train on the way to Yaroslavl met some required maximum speed. We departed our train and dragged our bags towards the metro station. We were staying at Izmailovo Beta for the last two nights ... rather affordable place and not terribly uncomfortable based upon our last trip there. We met Katja's friend and university groupmate Anja at the train station as well. Anja is a rather cheerful and dramatic girl. Her English was excellent in September when Katja and I met her in her hometown of Rybinsk. However, she seemed a bit rusty this time. We dragged our suitcases through the Moscow Metro and across the icy street and sidewalk leading up to Izmailovo Beta. For the uninformed, the Izmailovo hotel complex consists of 4 multi-story hotels ... Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Vega ... located on the east side of Moscow. I'm not sure of any distinction between the hotels, as far as class or such ... they all appear about the same to me. They are quite affordable compared to most places in Moscow. They were originally constructed for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and they have been renovated since. The entrances and lower floors seem reasonably nice and the rooms are ok ... certainly not terrible, but a bit spartan. I've been their twice and I would say the service is a bit uneven. The first time Katja and I were there, was the end of my last trip ... and room service was really very good, even kind ... towards us. This trip I will detail a bit more but ... the service wasn't quite what we expected. We checked into our hotel room and Anja seemed quite excited about our visit. She is a bit hyper anyway, and she and Katja were joking around ... she kept switching to Russian, which slowed down my participation in the conversation a good deal. Once we were checked into our 28th floor room, we decided to go eat .... neither Katja or I had eaten most of the day. We explored the restaurants in the hotel first, and found them a bit lacking. We considered the sushi place in the hotel ... but the when we asked about the menu items and mentioned sushi, the waitress made a surprising (and rude) remark about ... "god, I am pregnant and if I have to smell sushi, I'm going to barf". I am not sure of her exact words for "barf" but Katja and Anja said it was actually surprisingly rude ... so we skipped it. The hotel was dead quiet anyway, so we decided the food there couldn't be very good. Clever Anja decided to ask the doorman about restaurants in the area that might be interesting or suitable. Something about how Anja asked, must have annoyed the guy, because he became quite sarcastic, saying something about anything would be suitable for the likes of you, and eyeballing me, suggested we go to McDonald's (!). He was one of the few people on this trip to quickly surmise that I am American (despite the Carhartt jacket which many here just didn't recognize as typical American). Considering I don't eat McD's at home, I certainly wasn't going to eat it in Russia. At this point, Anja suggested we take the Metro to Korchma, an Ukrainian-style restaurant chain in Moscow. There was one near where she lived with her boyfriend (he would have been with us, but was apparently not feeling well) and so we were off ... Korchma was rather crowded upon our arrival. We checked our coats (typically Russian ... seems only nicer restaurants do this in the US anymore.) We were seated a bit too close to the door, for my tastes ... but I don't speak out too much while in Russia. It was actually drafty and the hostess brought blankets for Anja and Katja ... the couple of women near us also had blankets worn almost as shawls across the shoulders. Korchma was otherwise a pleasant surprise, rather western in its service and style. The waiters and waitresses wear these old-style Ukrainian costumes, which I suppose they feel a bit silly about. However, we subject our waiters and waitresses to the same sort of costume abuse, so I suppose it is a lesson learned from the west. I tried salo for the first time while at Korchma. Tasted rather garlicky and at first I thought it was hummus ... as it has a similar but smoother taste. Anja was taking care of most of the ordering, she is rather assertive like that. I actually think that she must come across as a bit pushy or "new Russian" as I noticed that Katja seems to get a better response from people. If my Russian was better, I could probably pick up on the language and tone that she uses. One more note to remember, you would-be travelers to Russia: the Value Added Tax (VAT) here is (drumroll please) 18%. So when you order at a restaurant ... another 18% is added to the bill. It used to be 20% (or so I read) and there is talks of reducing it by 2008. Either way, it is a pretty steep tax. When bothering to speak in English, Anja spent much of the night talking about how in love she is now, and how she wants to be married to her boyfriend, and be a good obedient wife. She was speaking about how fulfilling it would be, to have a man who is better than her, and makes decisions for her ... and she can just stay at home and be a good wife (!) This didn't sound like the same Anja from my last trip, as last time she was talking about how important and responsible she is at her company, and how they make aircraft engines and she has to deal with all their foreign clients and she is very good at making all their arrangements and even people who have been with the company longer can't do all the things she can do, etc. So I started to joke and tease her a bit about what she was saying ... and as she became more emphatic, I said "Oh come on Anja, you must be joking ... I can't picture you being subservient to some man." this current boyfriend (Dima) apparently is a big-wig or thinks he is a big-wig at work ... he splits his time between Rybinsk and Moscow .... and he likes to tell Anja what she can and can not do, and when she will or will not do it. Seems she had to work her schedule to even go out with us, and he expected her home at any hour now. I was teasing Anja about the requirement that she get home immediately, trying to prompt her into staying out later with us ... it is still New Years after all. I wanted to go out later, we talked of going bowling or something ... but it sounded like Anja thought we were underdressed for bowling (as the place she was suggesting is also a night club and required you to look a bit nicer than jeans). Anja also caved in to her boyfriends demands and was working to get home by 21:30 or so. So this first night was cut short. We found a taxi and took Anja home and then went to the nearest metro station. The taxi driver charged us almost nothing, something like 80 rubles and I gave him 100 and told him to keep the change. Cheapest taxi ride I ever had in Moscow. Yana, who used to live here was horrified with the rates I paid for taxi's in Moscow ... she always used to thumb down the nearest car and negotiate a price for a ride somewhere (yep, you can do that in Moscow). Later, I will be told by this guy named Volodia how the rates vary not only according to your being a foreigner, but also how you speak Russian, etc. He said I am in the worst case, having a non-Moscovich Russian speaking woman with a foreign guy, they are going to stick you with the highest price they can. Let that be a warning to the rest of you!

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