On March 29, 2011 a dumbass boarded a plane to Moscow to visit his Russian girlfriend. Moscow is a whole different species compared to American cities. This dumbass had no idea what he was getting himself into. He was going right into America’s Bizarro World.
Going to Moscow is a bitch. You need to have a basic understanding of the language and alphabet. The Russian Alphabet looks simple, but it’s needlessly complicated and will make your brain explode. If you see a sign that says “Ресторан”, you want to say Peck-toe-pah, but it’s pronounced “resterahn” and means “restaurant”. Ps are Rs, and Cs are Ss, and Hs are Ns. That’s fucked up. They also have a bunch of made up letters like Ж, Щ, and Ф. That’s really fucked up. I spent 6 months using Rosetta Stone and Russian for Dummies and learned enough Russian to know that I didn’t know any Russian.
Trying to learn the language is the first step. If you want to go to Moscow you need a passport. In this post 9/11 world getting a passport is more of a hassle than ever. You gotta fill out a bunch of forms, you need to take required photos, there’s a whole bunch of hoops you have to jump through. After getting a passport, you need to apply for a visa. The passport is the easy part. Getting a visa to a country that we have a strained relationship is really hard and super frustrating. There are even more forms to fill out, and they need to be meticulously filled out, any mistakes and you will be denied. I was a little lucky that my girlfriend’s mom worked in a Russian travel agency and was able to get me a business visa as opposed to a tourist visa. Tourist visas are even harder to get approved for. To get a visa you have to go to the Russian Embassy. If you think waiting in line at the DMV sucks, you don’t know shit. I waited for more than an hour as two people ahead of me were denied visas for trivial reasons. I had 3 copies of each individual form filled out a few different ways in case I fucked up on one. Good thing too, because one form was all kinds of invalid. My paperwork was cleared, and after I gave them my money order (not a check) and waited a few weeks, I came back to the Russian Embassy and waited in line again to pick up my visa.
So I have my passport, my business visa, and now I can finally buy my plane tickets. I dropped about $1300 on those, a nice little chunk of change. I would soon find out that changing my return flight home to an earlier date costs another $400. Going to Moscow is expensive, but staying there is even more so. Flying to Moscow takes also forever. I think I spent about 28-30 hours in the air round trip. I also had a 12 hour layover in one airport. 12 hours in an airport feels like a week. I read the Tommyknockers by Stephen King, watched Watchmen on my lap top, took a nap, went to a few bars, and still had 4 hours left before my flight took off. 12 hours in an airport…. Let that sink in. 12 hours alone in a foreign airport is essentially public solitary confinement.
I finally landed at Sheremetyevo International Airport. That’s the second busiest Moscow airport. The main one, Domodedovo International, had been attacked by terrorists a few months before my flight. Good to know. As soon as I touched down it began to snow. I thought to myself that it was going to be a great trip. I hate being wrong.
When most people think of Russia, they think of vodka. The truth is they prefer beer. They drink a lot of beer. There are kiosks all over the street that sell beer, Red Bull, cigarettes, and Coke. Russian men walk down the street with a beer in one hand, a cig in the other, and a scowl on their face. Everyone seems angry and pissed off. Russian beer is primarily lager. It was all light, golden beers without any flavor. I didn’t see any IPAs or stronger tasting beers.
America has convenience stores. You walk around the store, you pick up what you want, and you take it to the cashier and pay for it. Moscow has inconvenience stores. Everything is on display, but you can’t just grab a Coke from the cooler because the cooler is locked. You have to get the cashier to get your Coke for you. If you can’t ask for it, you aren’t going to get it.
The grocery store was pretty different too. They don’t really have cereal there. American grocery stores have a whole aisle of every type of cereal imaginable. In Moscow they only have a few lame cereal choices, mostly corn flake looking things. They didn’t have any Cheerios or Kellogg’s or sugar cereal with cheap toys. They have way more types of juice than us. They have peach juice, strawberry juice, cherry juice, kiwi juice… more flavors than you can imagine. They have breakfast sausage, but it’s not like a Jimmy Dean sausage link, it’s more like a bland hotdog that you eat plain. I wasn’t a fan. They put mayonnaise on everything. Everything. And mayo comes in bag, not a jar. Seriously, mayo on everything. Borscht is good. Everyone and everywhere has their own version of it, and everyone thinks theirs is the best.
Cabs don’t have meters. You have to negotiate with the driver and settle on a price. If you can’t ask for change, you aren’t getting any change. I paid about $30 bucks to go a mile and half. I made that cabbie’s day. There are also fake cabs: just dudes looking to make a few extra bucks driving people around. I wouldn’t recommend these for the average tourist. I took a ride in one, but it was up to my girlfriend to settle on a rate with the driver.
Traffic sucks. I thought LA traffic was bad. I was in stop and go traffic on the way to the airport, and an ambulance went by. There were 3 BMWs following in its wake, using the ambulance as an escort until they got pulled over. That was pretty badass. People park their cars any way and anywhere they can. On the wrong side of the street, halfway on the sidewalk, all the way on the sidewalk… it’s anarchy. And I didn’t see a single parking ticket. One thing I noticed about Moscow drivers is that they flash their hazards to say thank you if you let them into your lane. That’s one of the few polite things they do for each other.
They have lots of forms of transportation. They have busses, light rail trams, and minivans. The minivans are like little busses but with more specialized routes and it’s own separate stops. They have a pretty decent metro system too. The Moscow Metro is really easy to find (just look for the giant red M), but it’s not as user-friendly as American subways. In America, subways usually have multiple train lines on one track, so if you want to transfer to a different train you simply exit the one you’re on, and wait for the new train to arrive and then you jump on that one. The Moscow Metro has multiple trains on multiple tracks on multiple levels. If you want to transfer trains, you have to get off, go to the stairs, find out which train you need now, and go to a different level and jump on the new train. The Metro stations are landmarks, each one has original statues and paintings.
The city’s architecture is crazy. Imagine taking Gotham City, New York, London, and Paris and shaking them up in a bag, then dumping the contents randomly. Throw in Russian Orthodox churches and monuments to dead dictators and you have the city skyline. Every single style of architecture, all jumbled together, it’s very jarring. The buildings look impressive, but when you look closer you see windows missing, bolts showing, rust and neglect. It’s like wearing a tuxedo with shoes on, it looks ok from a distance, but it’s clashing.
The city looks amazing at night. It’s beautiful. There are more lights than Las Vegas without being as tacky. And you can’t see the neglect at night. The city has a history, and you can feel it.
I saw the KGB headquarters. I was too scared to take a picture.
I didn’t see any homeless people. That’s weird cause in most US cities you trip over them. I saw a lot of stray dogs. They were everywhere. I saw packs of them, pairs of them, and loner dogs. Some of them have figured out how to ride the Metro and even know what station to get off at. I wish I had one as a tour guide.
I didn’t get a chance to watch much TV, but I noticed both times I caught a glimpse of TV, curling was on. Americans only see curling on TV every four years at the Winter Olympics, so I was entranced by the majestic displays of ice bowling. The airport bathroom had a plug-in hand dryer, and the hot and cold taps were on the opposite side from American faucets.
Russian women are beautiful. My Russian for Dummies book says that Russian women have a philosophy that they only live once, so they might as well look their best. They get decked out just to run to the store. There are a lot of stunning women walking around looking good. Russian families are a lot closer than American families. I saw lots of grandparents walking their grandkids to and from school.
Russians hate Americans but they love American culture. Hard Rock Café is a 3 story restaurant that turns into a discotheque on the weekends. They have multiple DJs and a bunch of Russians dancing to bad techno music. It’s the place to be. McDonald’s is super popular. I would have liked to try a Russian Big Mac, but I never got the chance because the line was always out the door. There’s quite a few Starbucks over there too. They even have Dunkin’ Donuts. San Francisco doesn’t even have Dunkin’ Donuts. I went to a T.G.I. Friday’s on my last night there. It was pretty busy there, but it’s always happening at Friday’s.
Well in case you haven’t figured it out yet from my multiple usage of first person, I was the dumbass who boarded that plane a year ago. We played Monopoly and my Russian girlfriend became my Russian ex girlfriend. And there I was, suddenly single, sad, and stuck in Moscow, America’s Bizarro World. It was an experience. It was the best and worst time of my life. And it was a year ago now. So maybe Moscow got better, I just don’t care to find out.
Critically Rated at 12/17