A collection of mosquito bites later, we left the dacha the next day and made our way to Moscow. This time we just took the direct train, which was quite a bit faster than the nearly 3-hour trek getting to the dacha. I was quite nervous and had absolutely no idea what to expect. Here I am heading into the heart of the country which was, even during my own lifetime and indeed a good chunk of my youth, the enemy of the country shown on my passport... and I'm carrying a massive backpack that effectively broadcasts "I'm from west of the former Iron Curtain". I pondered striking up an Irish or Scottish accent... and mentally thought about adding "eh" onto the end of all my sentences. That time spent in Montreal a couple weeks earlier wasn't for nothing, you know.
I can't deny that it was a bit uncomfortable as we rode the train, the Metro, the trolley, and ultimately walked the rest of the way to the apartment tower. I certainly drew stares. However, now that I'm all settled in, the city really feels like any other European city. I think the reason I was drawing stares wasn't so much out of contempt or anything like that... but just that backpackers are outright rare out here; and it was more a curiosity.
Arriving at Anastasia's apartment, I was introduced to her mom, Elena – who is also very friendly and, of course, speaks very little English. Her mom keeps bringing more and more food to the table, helping me become familiar with the phrase “Nyet, spasiba” (no thanks). Anastasia’s cat has a name very similar to what I would name a pet of my own – that is, the cat’s name is Koshka. In Russian, “koshka” means “cat”. If you ask me, the least creative names are the more rare and, hence, the best.
The apartment is beautiful and more modern than most American dwellings... not at all what the stereotypes of Russia would make one anticipate. However, the apartment itself is located in a more typical Le Corbusier style (that is: tall “Soviet” apartment block) tower, which did feel relatively rustic as compared to most Western places. I did like it though – it just had this feel that it was more functional and less materialistic.
The day was rather dreary, and when rain kicked in: some of Anastasia's friends had to call off an outdoor birthday celebration & instead came over to the apartment. There were three – one a soldier back from Chechnya (Victor), another (Roma) an avid photographer (with limited English, but excited to try to talk to me), and then another guy (Yarik) whom spoke English well enough that we spent most of the time talking politics. I gotta admit, that's the exact conversation I had been hoping to delve into. I've always wondered what life was like in the former Soviet Union – did they have "flash" drills at school? Did their maps show an entire country grayed out as "no data"? What kind of stories did they hear about America? It was fun delving into all of it & it was nice to have someone whom was willing to honestly speak about it all.
We ate shish-kabobs, which the guy was attempting to convince me was made of dog meat. Considering the number of mongrel dogs around the city, I was willing to accept the idea; but remained skeptical the whole time. I explained everybody likes to play tricks on the visiting foreigner – attempting to teach them made-up things about the country just to mess with them. Although I did try to play the field a bit and explain that I’ve eaten deer, bear, buffalo, horse… all true, but I was testing the waters a bit to see if he’d react to any of those. He eventually relented and stated that it was not actually dog. Woo hoo, skepticism won out.
I stood out on the balcony talking with this guy while the others eventually made their way back into the apartment. I later followed and found that the soldier was in the kitchen discussing his time in Chechnya. The guy I had been talking to was translating for me: the soldier guy was excitedly talking about how many people he killed; and how. From the look on Svitlana’s face, whom is particularly against war, I suspect this time there was no joking about. Granted, I wasn’t particularly surprised – I hear these exact same discussions back in America about some friends’ experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, or any of the other countries we have our mitts in.
Upon noticing that Svitlana was clearly not comfortable, we got up and left the room; and minutes later we were all on our way out the door to walk down to Red Square. The guy I had been talking to, during our walk, eventually crossed the point of inebriation where I just couldn’t hold a conversation anymore. I can’t say I minded, because that just made Anastasia & Svitlana cling even closer to me to keep him at bay… it doesn’t matter if we’re just friends; having a girl on each arm is always a welcome situation.
All this time, Moscow had felt just like any European city; but Red Square changed all that and managed to take my breath away. It has got to be among the most beautiful squares I have ever laid eyes on (indeed, I'm having trouble thinking up any other that could top it). Lit up at night, all the surrounding buildings were absolutely remarkable. Granted, I didn't realise that it was about midnight when we arrived -- the sun having only set perhaps an hour or so earlier. That's what happens when you're quite a bit further north of the equator! Red Square isn’t beautiful because of parkland – indeed I can’t quite recall there being any trees. The architecture, splendor, and the memories sparked by the sight of the former Soviet Union’s essence – that’s what made it remarkable.
We briefly met up with an Australian girl, hosted by two Russian girls (although I think the one may have actually been Slovak). They all spoke excellent English (as would be expected of the Aussie) and I was intrigued by the one Russian girl. She looked East Asian, but was a native Russian... that only furthered my desire to explore Russia's far east, just to further shatter my stereotypes and to see the Russians that don't look like what we would think a "Russian" would look like. However, by this point it was about 2am and we needed to get back to the apartment to sleep.
The apartment was not large, and one room provided sleeping arrangements for Anastasia, Svitlana, and Anastasia’s mother; not to mention the cat roaming about. Meanwhile, owing to the splendid hospitality of the Gorbuneva family, I slept by myself in Anastasia’s room – in her comfy sofa bed. I didn’t take a gander at the sleeping arrangements for the other three, but I am quite confident that I had the better accommodations by far. Words just can’t quite cover how grateful I was for that.