Saturday, December 22, 2007

In Which I Describe Our First Week in Moscow

Ah, where to begin?

We left Bratislava December 14, with the idea and understanding that we needed to be in Moscow before our shipment of household items arrived, supposedly on December 17.

The journey here was actually pleasant and relatively hassle-free. Okay, we asked for two taxis to take us to the Vienna airport, and only one came, and the driver just stood and stared at our six suitcases until the Spouse screamed at him to please call a colleague. But we made it with time to spare.

We flew on FlyNiki, which was a delight. Charming, helpful ground crew. Charming, helpful cabin crew. Best airline food I’ve ever had in Cattle Class. Okay, we had to pay for part of it, but it was a good value for the money and delicious.

Arriving with the cat was not even a problem: we rolled our luggage cart, with the cat in his box on top of the heap, past the Customs officers who merely ooh-ed and ahh-ed and made Look at the Cat! noises in Russian.

The fun began when we were unable to locate our Russian taxis. After a series of phone calls, we realized that the Spouse’s new office staff had indeed ordered two taxis for us, but had dispatched them to the wrong airport. At rush hour on a Friday night in Moscow, this was not a problem that was going to be quickly remedied.

But one taxi came along quickly enough. We did some fast calculations and determined that the best solution was to send the Spouse, children, and cat in the first taxi and leave me armed with the Spouse’s Blackberry to wait for the second one.

On paper, this, perhaps, sounds truly awful: leaving the poor wife, alone, unable to speak any Russian, in the dark Moscow night to wait for a taxi she doesn’t know, to take her to an address she has not only never seen, but cannot pronounce.

The reality was not so bad at all: I watched people, smoked, and fielded questions from lost passengers for about 45 minutes until my taxi came. I knew it was my taxi because the Spouse called to tell me what to look for. I handed the driver the phone so the Spouse could tell him the address, and I arrived only a few minutes after the first taxi.

The apartment is still bare, this being December 22 and still no shipment in sight. But the girls have new bunk beds and the Spouse and I have the Inflatable Bed, which you, Gentle Reader, might get to sleep on when you come for a visit. It’s okay, but not my lovely king-sized bed with thousand threadcount sheets. However, the apartment is big enough and has some charm (and, most importantly, a washing machine), and we pass the days well enough for now.

I flew here with a cold, and the cumulative affects of many late nights bidding friends in Bratislava farewell combined with the dry and polluted Moscow air, took its toll: I had a sinus headache for almost a week. This and the stimulation of being in such a big, new city, caused me to sleep a lot for many days. We did go to a nice Christmas party at a partner’s gorgeous flat in the center. And we had some nice meals out. But mostly I slept. Call it avoidance, but with little to read, no internet, music, or TV, it seemed like a reasonable solution.

The girls were troopers: playing nicely with each other for hours, chasing the cat, singing Christmas carols, and drawing on the cardboard that covered many of the newly refinished hardwood floors.

A few days ago I got a Russian mobile phone number. Finally! Contact with the outside world!

And the Spouse figured out the world of Russian WiFi, enabling me to access email and my blog, if intermittently.

Today we ventured to a LARGE market, just to have a look-see. I have already mastered the Moscow Metro, many times by myself (well, without the Russian-speaking Spouse). I have found three grocery stores within walking distance of our apartment. They include the little corner grocery (good for cleaning supplies and chicken in a package that does not require me to talk . . . and LOTS of vodka), the very upscale 7 Continents chain (good for French style breads, gorgeous desserts, and the machines where I can purchase phone credit), and the Nose Curlingly Expensive Taste of Life chain . . . home of the $10 salad-in-a-bag. Oh. My. God. I have never in my life encountered such a gorgeous grocery store. But all I could say to Skittles the day we ventured inside was “PUT THAT BACK!” The Spouse’s new Moscow job does indeed come with a new Moscow salary, but I can never, in good conscience, shop in the Taste of Life.

So it was fun to check out the market, now that we had some context.

Imagine your impressions of a Moroccan souk. Now triple that. One part was all stalls offering everything from Christmas decorations, shoes and boots, hardware, children’s party dresses, tights and underwear, fruits and nuts, cleaning supplies, plumbing supplies, fake fur hats . . . all in a sea of mud. Today anyhow. Later in January it might be buried under snow. The mind reels.
This was only the outdoor part. Across the street from this section was the Very New and Posh Mall where one can find Nine West shoes and L’Occitaine products. And around the corner was the indoor market.

This was like the Vienna Nascht Markt on steroids. Stand after stand of beautifully stacked towers of gorgeous fruits and vegetables: strawberries, raspberries, cherries, ripe tomatoes, fresh herbs, pomegranates, avocados, persimmons (PERSIMMONS!), potatoes, onions, beets, cauliflower . . . you name it.

In the back half of the building was World o’ Meat, which was a bit horrifying to Skittles because it was so newly butchered and still recognizable: hares (with the fur on the feet so you know they aren’t cats, but, honestly, doesn’t cat fur look a lot like rabbit fur?), a long row of suckling piglets, carcasses of all types being wheeled around on trolleys and hacked at by men with saws and cleavers. And the fish! Often still alive and thrashing, bright-eyed, and fresh. The crayfish were waving their claws and feelers. The carp were gasping on clean counters, the lobsters and crabs were swimming in giant tanks.

Skittles wanted fish, so we bought four of the freshest trout, had them scaled and cleaned before us, and carried them home for lunch. I also bought the most beautiful, fat chicken to roast for tomorrow. Was it cheap? No. Not even a bargain. But the quality was impeccable and the depth of the variety shocking after life in little Bratislava where we consider ourselves lucky to get arugala and fresh coriander on a mostly regular basis.

Tonight after I finish this, we will return to a Ukrainian chain called Taras Bulba, which I find an odd serendipity or coincidence or something because I had never heard of Taras Bulba before a few weeks ago when this Ukrainian warlord appeared in a Jane Smiley novel I was reading. Then he appears as the name of a restaurant next door to our Moscow apartment. It’s a funny themed place, with three floors, decorated with red and white tablecloths and ethnic tchochkis. They serve borscht and stuffed cabbage and pelminis and plates of pickled vegetables. I had a small honeyed vodka the first time, and it went down smooth as silk.

The weather has been underwhelming so far: temperatures just above freezing, little if any snow, and lots of wet, dirty sidewalks. The cars are all filthy, and every business employs someone to mop constantly. Tomorrow is supposed to be -6C, and already tonight the wet sidewalks are skating rinks. Tomorrow might be a Stay Home in Pajamas Day.

I can’t yet say if this is a fun place to be: the office starts at 10:00 a.m., mostly because here we’re three hours ahead of London and nine hours ahead of New York. This means the Spouse can go in later, but things really start heating up around our dinner time. I see many more late nights than in Bratislava. Living in Indoor Camping Mode is not a lot of fun, but once the satellite dish is up and the TV and internet connections are functioning, my life should return to something more normal. I can’t see returning to my Life of Fitness, as gyms are prohibitively expensive. And since we are living like New Yorkers without a car, I’ll spend more time escorting children to and from school (so that might make up for the lack of tennis, swimming and a trainer . . . ah, but I lived the Life of Riley in Bratislava . . .). Russian Christmas is December 31, and the whole country shuts down until January 9, so I won’t get to venture into anything resembling a Women’s Club before then, but I know there are friends out there just waiting to be met; it’s just a matter of waiting a little longer.

Baboo and Skittles have both visited their schools (they are on separate campuses for the rest of this school year). Baboo was invited to join her class yesterday for a Last Day Before Vacation Fun Day. Not only did she have fun and befriend all the kids in her class, she got to do a Shake Down Cruise of how things work in her building. So she’s fired up and ready to hit the ground running in January. She’s relieved and thrilled, and so are we.

Skittles is annoyed that her class is in a building that houses mostly younger kids. She’s counting the hours until she can join her sister and the big kids in September. But that will come.

The furniture might arrive December 25 (not a holiday here, but what a Christmas miracle that would be). If not, since everyone flees for home and hearth and Christmas vodka, we may continue in this mode until mid-January. Light a candle, think positive thoughts, say a prayer, or do whatever you do to call in good karma for us.

And I’ll keep you posted.


Anonymous said...

Ahoj :)
Nice to hear you are well prepared with humor and patience for your new begin! It sounds a lot more challenging than our easy life in small Bratislava.
I ll be in Moscow from 27 Dec till 1. Jan. Any advice? I think it will not be so cold, -1 degrees according to the weather forecast.. and you wrote all shops will be closed?
Take care and enjoy this new chapter in your life!

Pekny vecer (if you miss the Slovak language :)
Penny Lane

MiamiBob said...

Good to see you've landed properly in Moscow. Glad to stay in touch. What a world we live in, to share events simulaneously thousands of miles apart. We're off to California for the holidays.

Gary Kadlec said...

Yo Amanda! Now I know the answer to "Where in the world is Amanda?" I was able to dust off my fading memory banks and remember Bratislava Blogspot and a quick Google got me back in touch with you. I am glad that Ron got his dream posting to Moscow!! And look forward to your reports and pictures! Merry Christmas and a Happy 2008 to you, Ron and the girls!!! Gary Kadlec

MLM said...

Hola Amanda!

Que bueno leerte con tan buen espiritu! Ojala vuestras cosas hayan llegado el 25, cual verdadero regalo de Navidad.

Salud! Y que tengan un magnifico 2008 en Moscu!
Maria Lujan desde Eslovaquia

MoscowMom said...

I'm starting from the beginning... How funny to read you write about going to the office party, and to have spent the days before that helping my friend as she planned it! All those white chili bowls!

It's fun to read your first impressions :-)

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