Week 26: Czeching Out and A Visit to the Motherland (Moscow, Russia)

I knew I wanted to go to Moscow during our time in Europe, and avoiding the 14-hour bus ride from Prague to Belgrade definitely seemed worth it. So, I booked my flight, arranged to stay with my aunt, uncle, and cousin at their apartment, and said “Čau” to Prague.

All the Feels

The first thing that strikes me about Moscow is how big it is. The city is sprawling, the streets are wide (some regular city streets have 5-6 lanes, in one direction), the buildings are grand and imposing, the metro stations all feel like Grand Central.

The second thing is how unfamiliar it all feels.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, exactly, considering I left Russia as a six-year-old and have been back only once before, at age twelve. At this point, I know any of the cities I’ve visited on Remote Year better than I know the city in which I was born. Still, from my arrival, I felt a little like a stranger in my own country: wandering around taking in all the sights, not quite catching cultural references in conversations, excited to see family I hadn’t seen in 16 years but also saddened by the distance between us. Though I get to see my mom’s brother and his family fairly often, I hadn’t seen my dad’s side in many years. I was glad to spend time with my twin “nephews,” Yura and Pasha, and Pasha’s wife and adorable 7-month-old daughter Kseniya, and was especially glad to see my dad’s brother, with whom I’ve never been very close but who feels very much like a kindred spirit to me.

The combination of nostalgia and familiarity, strangeness, the feeling of loss for missing some part of this life that I could’ve lived, guilt for not being closer to it, and the bittersweet happiness of seeing family for such a short amount of time after such a long time apart made this an emotional trip for me. In the end, I’m grateful that I got to go, and feel the need to return more frequently in the future.

Scenes from my Childhood

Some of the coolest parts of my visit were retracing old footsteps and having sudden feelings of déjà vu or recognition:

  • Kurskaya Metro Station, where I recall accidentally grabbing a stranger’s hand instead of my mom’s while not paying attention, and panicking thinking I was going to get abducted.
  • My childhood neighborhood, building, and playground, where some things have changed to such an extent that I could only vaguely recall ever having been there, and others have stayed exactly the same, like the path home from the ice skating rink where my mom broke her leg when I was five.
  • The kitchen in my uncle’s apartment, which used to be my grandparents’ apartment, where my grandpa and I used to feed the birds from the windowsill.
  • The alley behind my uncle’s building, which is near an old prison that always gave me the heebie-jeebies as a kid.

Being a Tourist

Moscow isn’t usually as high on tourists’ lists as is St. Petersburg, but given my limited time, I stayed put. I gave myself blisters and foot cramps walking around, mostly with my aunt and uncle and cousin Lena, seeing some highlights and being exposed to some local spots:

  • VDNH, the former exhibition park of the Soviet republics, and now a large park with gigantic restored pavilions. In typical Russian fashion, the pavilions were all empty, but I did enjoy walking around the territory with its Soviet-era rockets (including the one in which Yuriy Gagarin flew), the Fountain of International Friendship, and pop music blasting from loudspeakers on the main promenade.
  • Don Quixote ballet at the New Opera, a fun performance with great music and some of the most fortes I’ve ever seen performed live, and chock-full of extremely well-behaved young kids, who sat through the entire 3-hour performance less restlessly than I did.
  • The Kremlin and the Diamond Fund, whose lines were almost purposefully part of the experience: “You wanted a taste of Soviet life? Wait.” And wait we did, spending half the day in some sort of queue for a 45-minute visit to the Diamond Fund, with its impressive czarist-era crowns, scepters, diadems, jewelry and raw precious stone and metal collections.
  • Red Square, which I missed due to rehearsals for an upcoming show, but saw somewhat from the rooftop observatory of Children’s World, the most popular children’s megastore in Moscow.
  • Pushkin Square, where I waited for my “nephews” for about an hour after walking around Tverskoy Boulevard and Kuznetskiy Most, observing locals reading, catching up and meeting their friends, and imagining my mom waiting here for her girlfriends when she was in school or university.
  • Old & New Arbat streets, full of man-made temporary exhibits of flowers and plants, street performers, and local and western chains. (We ate at Beverly Hills Diner – ironic, I know.)
  • Moscow State University, which my cousin Lena attended, in all of its massive glory overlooking the rest of the city, and our ensuring 3-hour walk down by the Moscow River and through Gorky Park, during which we saw thousands of Muscovites on scooters, rollerblades, skateboards and bikes, enjoying the last days of summer.
  • Artplay, a Brooklyn-esque warehouse space and home of design stores, schools of design, exhibits and a museum, in which we saw a multimedia exhibit of the works of Heironymous Bosch. His 15th century-era paintings were transformed into lightly-animated films, and set to music, enticing me to observe in great detail a piece of art that I would likely pass in 30 seconds at a museum.
  • Christ the Savior Cathedral, which has been restored to its pre-Soviet glory (it was demolished and the foundation used as a pool in Soviet times), with its massive Taj Mahal-like white walls and golden domes, and a beautifully-painted interior.
  • Strelka island on the Moscow River, former home of Red October chocolate factory, current home of Meatpacking District-like bars and cafes where Lena & I enjoyed the sunset, had dinner, and later went crazy buying up everything in the chocolate store.

Lena and I also tried out a couple of bars, from local Izya Grill and Torro Grill, where we tried vodka infusions, to chic Mendeleev, a speakeasy-style bar in a former sauna, accessed only through an un-marked Chinese food restaurant, where we had fancy unnamed cocktails made by expert mixologists.

As they say, it’s not easy coming home, but in this case, I’m glad that it wasn’t difficult, either, and hope to be back soon.

And now, on to Belgrade, Serbia, and the second half (!) of my Remote Year adventure.

 

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