Journal - Scott's Russia Blog · March 02, 2007
Scott's Russia Blog March 02, 2007

Scott’s Blog on Russia... 

Our Russian experience was one of what we expected and some welcome surprises along the way. It was truly an adventure.

Growing up during the Cold War, it seemed impossible that one day we would be friends. Having now visited and even with our brief experience there, I can’t see why we haven’t been allied with this country all along, especially when the people seem to be so much like us. We certainly have more in common with the Russians than we have with countries often referred to as “strong” allies. Hopefully the relations between our countries will continue to improve for the betterment of the world.

Russians seem to enjoy all things Western, but the Soviet style lingers, mainly, shortages still exist. We went to the Hard Rock Café to buy Sharon a shirt. They had the design she liked in XS, S, XL, and XXL. No Mediums or Larges. We went to a German Pub where German Music was playing Scott asked, in German, if the bartender spoke German and the answer was, “yes, of course.” The bartender didn’t speak a word of German and they served us 2 dark beers as we sat down. We asked if they had any Warsteiner, Spaten, or Bitburger (the tap pulls had the names on it). No, they were out of all three of these. In fact, the only person in the whole place who spoke German was the gal who seated us. Bummer, dude. This was common and became almost expected; the shortages and one heck of an effort to overcome them. When the shops did have our size and the restaurants hadn’t run out, we were pleasantly surprised.

Almost as amusing as the shortages were the style and preparation of the food. Sharon and I have seen this almost everywhere we’ve traveled, so I’m not picking on Russians here. I ordered room service Chicken Wings and they were delicious; baked, not fried with the right “hot” sauce. But the carrots and celery came on the same covered plate with the wings, so I had steamed carrots and celery, not to mention the dressing wasn’t anywhere close to the advertised Bleu Cheese. Hot Dogs are often advertised as exquisite sausages, hot plates at the hotel breakfast buffet may or may not be turned on, and the descriptions of food are often amusing to say the least. One morning the hotel buffet breakfast listed “conserved corn” (canned corn), ”omlette” (fluffed eggs cut into squares), “Breakfast Sausage” (Hot Dogs), and three words that made no sense which contained green beans.

A good sense of humor is essential to enjoying a trip such as this, and we were grateful that almost everywhere we went, someone either spoke English or was patient enough to wait as we thumbed through our phrase book. The effort to accommodate tourists was apparent everywhere, and printed multilingual guides were in every hotel we stayed at, as well as the major attractions.

Moscow  has stores that can accommodate any shopper. We were interested to see that the old, state run, Gum department store at Red Square is now inhabited by the best International brands (Dior, Cartier, Brooks Brothers, Gucci, to name a few). We were told there are 4 IKEA stores in Moscow , and there are Mega stores all throughout the suburbs. I enjoyed the street kiosks where each specialized in a type of product. One sells fruit, the next pasta and bread, the next tobacco, and so on. It seemed for each group of these there were 3 or 4 stores that sold liquor or at least beer. I expected to see people drinking alcohol everywhere, but that wasn’t the case; people seemed to drink in restaurants and such, but not “walking down the street.”

Russians smoke a lot. Every restaurant was annoyingly full of smoke, and the non smoking section was only observable by a lack of ashtrays on the table. The life expectancy of the average Russian male is 62 years, 15 less than his North American counterpart. Based on what I saw, I’m not surprised.

Not to pick on Russian men, but we didn’t observe many gentlemen during our visits. Many men walk with a swagger and seem crass in their demeanor. At lines in stores and such, many step in front of you, almost elbowing their way to be next. At the breakfast buffet at the hotel, there was no line, just a group of people (men and women) each jockeying themselves to be next to grab the tongs. I made coffee one morning and was physically bumped by no less than 4 people in about 30 seconds, almost spilling my coffee twice. On the other hand, on a couple of occasions, strangers helped me with my suitcase and everyone seemed to appreciate what little Russian I could speak, and those bright spots made the journey much more enjoyable.

Russians in general seem to live hard lives. The weather, the smoking, the drinking, and so on seem to take their toll. We read an article about a 33 year old flight attendant for Aeroflot, she looked 45 to me in the photo. There aren’t smiles on peoples faces. People seem to get through the day, but it’s the opposite of, say Latin America, where people are don't have much but appear generally happy. Moscow seems to be an island of prosperity, with many in the countryside being extremely poor.

Fashion in was interesting. Many young women wear heels, and heeled boots for that matter. Combine this with heavy makeup and faux fur coats and, you guessed it, they look cheap. The young men have a similar problem. Fashionable suits are of the polyester variety and look like they’re from the 1970’s, wide collars and all. Hairstyles, sideburns, and thick eyebrows go a long way in predicting the next Elvis sighting. It was amusing to see the young “business guys” dressed up in such attire with their swagger and such. It seemed to match the young ladies style and sense of fashion. Beauty in the eye of the beholder, they say.

Russians like their heat. Every building seemed to be at 80+ degrees, and the cars were even hotter with no fresh air. We chatted at the embassy when we were getting Evan’s visa and everyone had this same comment. We were told heat is a luxury, and in that case, we were in tall cotton! We turned our heat off in the Marriott, only to have the maid turn it on full blast again during the day. She must have really wondered about us!

Everywhere we went was clean from the standpoint of litter. Someone was always sweeping or mopping, and things were not broken, meaning they worked and thing were maintained. During many trips, in particular, Latin America, things were broken and left broken. I remember telling the Colombian attendant that the sink handle(s) was broken in 3 of the 4 sinks in the men’s restroom, only for him to point out that the 4th sink worked just fine. Russians seem good about repair and maintenance in general, which was refreshing because it bothers me when things are not fixed (and worse, when no one seems to care if they are broken).

Street signs and huge advertisements were everywhere as in many European cities we’ve been in. Traffic was a nightmare, and since 1989 the number of cars has more than tripled to 3.5 million in Moscow alone. New cars such as Nissan, Toyota, and Kia seem to dominate the market, with many of the old Lada and Volga cars still around. We did see a few Janesville built Tahoes in Moscow and a few Hummers and Escalades. Always visible were the black Mercedes with tinted windows, and many a rumor has it these are the Russian mafia. Gas is sold in 80, 92, 95, and 98 octane and gas stations were everywhere and resembled the convenience stores we find in the states.

Coal power plants were everywhere, marked by their telltale red and white stacks, though the opacity of these was less than 10% from what I could tell, and the plume of the scrubbers was very evident (I was expecting more pollution than this). Power lines showed all 3 phases, but they were clustered in groups of as many as 10 smaller loomed wires per phase. Perhaps this is preventative in case one of the wires goes down, there are 9 backing it up. Government buildings were almost exclusively heated by hot water or steam, and the steam plant near the orphanage ran pipes for at least a mile in every possible direction.

The Moscow airport is slightly larger than that of Madison, Wisconsin’s. My guess is there are about 20 departure gates and they seem to handle the volume adequately and the very large planes we flew in and out were always full. The duty free had good shopping, but the restaurants are bare bones and provide only enough to tide a person over until the next stop.

We bought a 60 day Worldclub pass from Northwest which costs $85. It was worth it and I recommend it to anyone about to take the first of their 3 trips, because the trips went quickly for us (3 trips in 7 weeks) and my only regret was that we didn’t purchase it on our first trip. The club has free Wi-Fi, drinks, and snacks, and is a great place to rest away from the craziness of the airport ( Detroit’s PA paging system seemed to go off every 30 seconds, and got on my nerves, big time).

Well, this is my first blog and I hope you found it to be interesting, perhaps even helpful if you’re headed to Moscow in the coming months.