… in the form of a city. Maybe that makes it my soulcity?
Surprisingly, I’m talking about Moscow. Yes, Moscow of “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears”. A place I imagined to be cold and hard and dark. It is anything but that.
Moscow is full of energy and color. This time of year, it smells of lilac and cigarette smoke. The pace is fast and the traffic is heavy. Everything is on a grand scale (buildings, cathedrals, stretch limos), and everything is a reminder of the past. I saw nothing of the darkness and gloom that I’d imagined; the energy of the city (at least as I perceived it) felt upbeat and alive and even youthful.
I squealed on nearly every street corner in the center of the city when I recognized buildings and landmarks that I’d read about for years in Russian Studies classes. I got misty eyed when I first spotted St. Basil’s Cathedral in the Red Square. I frequently launched into (uninvited) lectures about eastern orthodoxy and socialist realism and the Russian political system, probably to the dismay of the fellow CCS volunteer I was traveling with. I was finally meeting the rock star whose poster I had hung above my bed since middle school, and let me tell you, I was well-prepared.
The Moscovites I observed and interacted with were not closed off. They were out with their friends and their children, enjoying a warm and sunny weekend. They were playful, friendly, and helpful when I needed directions.
On the way to my hostel on Friday evening, I was dropped off by a hyperactive cab driver at a street corner that matched the address on my piece of paper, but the hostel wasn’t anywhere in sight. A couple in their twenties was passing by, so I asked them if they happened to know where this place was.
They had never heard of iVan Hostel (cute name though, right?). I showed them the address, and they agreed that we were technically in the right place. The man noticed I had a phone number written down, so he pulled out his own phone and called them for me to ask for directions. “Poshli,” he said (“let’s go”), and they walked us to the doorway according to the directions he had received. After waiting there with us until we got buzzed in, they said “no problem” to our dozens of “thank yous” and “spacibos” and wished us a good time in the city.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. Every time I asked for help, I was taken under someone’s wing and handled with care until I got where I needed to be. Every interaction I had there was a positive one.
Another surprising realization for me was that Moscow is a romantic city. I saw couples hugging, holding hands, and making out all over the place. I considered taking pictures just to prove to everyone back home that this is a place full of love, but that would have made me a creep.
There were also tons of bridal parties out and about. It’s wedding season in Russia, too, and they have a custom of visiting major sites in the city to take pictures in their wedding apparel. Most of the brides were wearing classy and traditional gowns, but more than one looked like she was wearing what I would imagine to be the result of Lady Gaga being locked in a room with a bedazzling kit and a case of Red Bull.
So that brings me to the opulence issue. Yes, Russia has a thing for flaunting wealth. Wouldn’t you want to show off your Christian Louboutins after seventy-ish years of communism? Moscow is home to the most billionaires in the world, and it’s an incredibly expensive city. I think I spent six dollars on a cappuccino at Starbucks, but I’m not entirely sure because I’ve been too distracted to actually calculate the exchange rate. I did see a lot of Bentleys and designer boutiques, but it wasn’t as in-your-face obnoxious as I expected.
One weekend wasn’t nearly enough time to get to everything I wanted to see. Others might disagree with me on that. In fact, a lot of people told me that once you’ve been to the Red Square, you’ve seen everything worth seeing in Moscow. But then again, much of what I’ve said here is against the standard opinion on this city.
Here is a Moscow-sized collection of photos I took this weekend. I hope the beauty and the joy I experienced in Moscow comes through in these images. More details to come shortly.