Thursday, February 7, 2008

In Which I Get Around

Temperature: +3C! Go figure.
Snow: Got some accumulation yesterday afternoon (on our way to judo class, of course), but it mostly melted on impact.
Crying Sessions on Metro: Still holding at just the one time. Although I came close yesterday when, while carrying two rather heavy bags, the handle on one broke. In my effort to juggle that one, I dropped the other, spilling magazines all over the floor in front of the door, just as the train pulled into my stop. Of course, no one helped.
Currently Reading: Finally finished A Spot of Bother (recommended). Now have two books for which I cashed in bookclub points. Didn’t think about it, just clicked the mouse, and had them sent to the Spouse’s NYC office, which then forwarded them on to me. They are The Multi-Orgasmic Woman, by Mantak Chia, and Christiane Northrup’s The Wisdom of Menopause. I’m sure Dude in the Mailroom thought this was interesting. Note to self: Just buy these things while you’re home this summer.

Friend Count: I guess I’m up to four now! The cast of characters, in case you're interested include the following:
Very Nice Woman (VNW): Hungarian. Persistent about calling and making me go places. This is important. Replaces my French Friend from Bratislava who used to insist I go places with her.
Luna’s Mom (LM): Fellow American who started her gig here with a series of hysterically funny cultural misunderstandings and pet crises. Well, they were funny to us because she writes about her time here so well and with such incredible observations. Luna is one of the pets.
Braveheart (BH): Scottish. We share the same first name and both have rather curly, reddish hair. She heard me speaking English at school and just introduced herself. Fed me lunch yesterday after I almost melted down on the metro. A friend indeed!
Sisu: Gorgeous Finnish woman whose kids also attend our school. Funny, smart, and leaving at the end of the school year to parts as yet undetermined. But she seems worth hanging out with now in spite of that. And the expat life is always unpredictable: we never thought we’d be in Posony as long as we were. And others get their gigs cut short. You just never know.

But I digress.

Did I mention the car is sold? I am officially and for the first time since I’ve been married without wheels. I’m glad I don’t have the car here. But life is a very different thing when you don’t have one.

The metro here is excellent, and I’ll say more about that in a bit. But what is interesting to me is how I do things differently without a car.

Take clothes, for example. Walking on the slushy, muddy streets wrecks havoc with clothes. The backs of trouser legs are always splashed and spotted with yuck. I’ve been lucky and everything has washed nicely. But Skittles has a pair of pink sweatpants that she adores, and those are permanently stained brown in spots. The point is I tend to wear the same few items because I don’t want to ruin better things.

Provisioning is another. With a car, I would go around town, gathering and delivering items during the day. When you have to carry everything you don’t buy heavy items at the grocery store next to the kids’ school if you can avoid it. But sometimes I just don’t think I’ll have time later to pop over to our store. So Tuesday I ended up carrying two rather heavy grocery bags with things in them like bottles of liquids. It’s hard on the tennis elbow.

Sometimes, once I am home, it’s simply not worth the effort to go back out again either. It’s not like I have to walk up a million flights of stairs. We do have an elevator. But sometimes I think, “Eh. I’ll deal with it tomorrow.”

But my point in writing this entry at all was to talk about the Moscow metro.

When I first came to Moscow, about a year ago and just for fun (“Just for fun? You came to Moscow just for fun?” This brought gales of laughter from some of the mothers at school recently.), the Spouse took me to a market on the metro. I remember being totally reliant on him to lead me around. And then realizing that while on the train, you cannot see signs for the stations. You must LISTEN as they are announced. This, to me, seemed insurmountable.

Fast forward ahead to now. I still cannot read all letters of the Cyrillic alphabet. But as long as I have my English/Russian version of the metro map, I can go anywhere by myself.

There are about 11 lines, which are identified by number and color. I use two lines most often: the red/1 and the grey/9.

I have a multiple ride ticket that I keep in my coat pocket. You can buy a variety of ride combinations. I think this one was 40 rides which is good for 45 days. If I am traveling with the children, I can use this one ticket for our three rides.

Inside the entrance to every metro station are gates. You hold your ticket near a sensor and when the light turns green you walk through. You do not need to show your ticket again, and if it is a single ride ticket, you can even throw it away now.

Most of the time what follows is a very long and very steep escalator. This can be the longest and slowest part of the journey. If you just want to stand, you must stay to the right. If you want to walk, either up or down the escalator steps, you do so on the left. I often walk down, especially when I am alone, because the ride can be as long as 90 seconds. I've timed it.

Once off the escalator, you are usually on or near a central platform. In many cases these are incredibly beautiful spaces. My regular stations are not so beautiful, but they almost always include some public art, and they are clean.

Unlike in Paris, where the trains run in the middle and the passengers wait on either side, here the passengers wait in the middle. This is handy because you don’t need to go through a maze of tunnels to get to the trains going in the opposite direction in case you made a mistake. You just need to read the signs.

This is the only potentially tricky part for me. I have to stand there, calm and zen-like, and study the signs carefully. I have never gotten on the wrong train. Yet. I just look very carefully for the station I want.

If I am slow studying the sign, it doesn’t matter because the trains come so often. During peak travel hours, they are barely a minute apart. The cars are big, and the trains are much longer than in Paris. The doors open automatically at each stop (no buttons to push or levers to flip). The passengers waiting to board stand to the sides and let the passengers who are exiting leave the train. The seats line the sides of the car, which is actually handier than the way they are in Paris (short rows on each side, like a bus or plane, but facing each other. And no one wants to sit next to the windows because then they have to climb over people to exit).

Before the doors close, there is always an announcement that says something like “Attention, the train is leaving the station. Next stop . . .” and then they say the name of the next stop.

Now it has happened that as the next station is being announced, another train has pulled in on the other side, making noise so I couldn’t hear the name of the next station. But most of my commutes are no more than two stops, and I now know where I am.

After exiting the train, there are always escalators and stairs going up. When it is busy, everyone swarms, like penguins, at the base of the escalator, because we must ride up single file, with walkers on the left and standers on the right. There are small glass cabins at the bottom of the escalators, staffed by very Communist looking women, tough broads in unflattering, militaristic uniforms, who maintain order. Hold on to your purse, and mind your wallet. It gets pretty intimate.

Then, depending on the station, you might exit into one of those Malls Under the Street, which means you can emerge on various corners of busy intersections. There are signs, but since I usually have not prepared myself for those words in Cyrillic, my first trips to some places have resulted in my popping up across the street from where I hoped to be. But no matter: the normal people just walking across the street have to use these underpasses anyhow. So I just go back down and stab at it again.

For the trip to the kids’ school, I now know when there is an advantage to being in the front, middle, or back of the train, whether to exit the train and go left or right, and how to navigate the Mall Under the Street so I pop up right where I want to be.

I’ve been all over the city like this. By myself. All without being able to read or speak Russian. If I can do it, anyone can.