Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What I Saw In Russia — Day 1

I’d like to tell you a story about how I met your mother my trip to Russia. But first, a caveat: for the entire week I was a little loopy since I suffered from major jet lag and slept on the average of four to six hours each night. So the events which I will recount did not necessarily happen in the order I tell them in, and the details might not be completely right. There’s also quite a few things about which I would not tell you because you would never believe me.

We landed on Monday morning at the Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport. Julie, Matthew and I were part of an 11-member choir singing in Russia. The three of us were to meet up in the airport with our driver carrying a sign saying “ПСТГУ* — SYNOD” but we couldn’t find him outside, so we ended up staying inside at a cafe. I was going to get a bottle of water but stopped when I realized that in rubles it was five dollars. Little did I know that this was not only an airport price, but indicative of Moscow prices in general. Julie and I also were going to look for the airport’s Orthodox chapel, but it was a bit far away.

We went outside again, where we fended off the mosquitoes. It was surprisingly hot and muggy, considering that it was early summer. After a while we finally found our driver, who almost was going to leave because he wasn’t able to find us! We piled our stuff in the back seat of a large Nissan van, and zoomed off to Moscow.

Did I say zoomed? Perhaps I should say crawled, or limped, or inched. A team of Volga boatmen pulling our car would have taken us to Moscow faster than in the hellish traffic jam that we faced for what felt like two hours. If Dante were alive today and rewrote his Divine Comedy, Purgatory wouldn’t be a mountain but the traffic jam we were in. What made things worse is that we didn’t have air conditioning in the summer heat. Nevertheless, we were in high spirits: Matthew hadn’t been in Russia in six years, and for Julie and me it was our first time. The three of us amused ourselves by looking at the Cyrillo-English signs, and rejoiced when we saw our first Макдоналдс.

Finally we approached Moscow. Buildings seemed bigger, there were more parks, and the traffic cleared up a little. As we entered the city, what struck me the most was the strange combination of architecture. Crumbling Soviet apartments mixed with ancient onion domes and the brash palettes of New Russia. It did not strike me that we were in Russia until I saw the Kremlin and Red Square from my window.

“Oh, St. Basil’s is smaller than I thought,” I said. That did not keep me from saying “oooh!” and “ahhh!” to every church we passed by. If I started crossing myself after passing each church in Moscow, my arm would have never stopped moving.

We stopped at the Martha-Mary Convent, where we picked up Fr. Andrei Sommer, the organizer of our trip. Forty minutes later, we arrived at the dormitories of St. Tikhon’s University (the aforementioned «ПСТГУ») to settle down, sign up for our rooms, and unpack. The dormitory was not terribly different from other college dormitories, except for the small wooden chapel in the courtyard. The four of us ate at the dorm’s small cafeteria, which served Russian food like pirozhky, cutlets, and other things. I ate some kind of cutlet and drank pear-flavored soda, which was pretty refreshing.

After a lot of waiting in the heat, the second half of our Moscow group, comprised of Alex Cooley, Alika, and David, finally arrived; their flight was delayed. We basically left as soon as they showed up, because we had to take a express train that night to St. Petersburg.

In downtown Moscow we stopped at a department store for dinner. Where we met up with Vladika Theodosy of Seattle, who was going to be traveling with us. I’ve known Vladika from shortly before he was consecrated a bishop in 2008. He’s very good with the youth and so I was glad to finally be able to travel with him. We also finally met up with our maestro, Nicky Kotar, with his equally-talented fiancée Anastasia.

This restaurant, along with every other restaurant we went to, was owned by a Russian émigré from South America who went back to Russia and became a successful restauranteur. He let us eat in all of his restaurants for free! We’re all very grateful to him, so I hope he won’t be offended if I list off several interesting things I noticed about restaurants in Russia:

First, they always serve bottled water (regular and sparkling), never tap, because nobody drinks the tap water in Russia. Second, they serve the meal somewhat differently than in America, which seems to cause service to be slow with a larger group. Third, there is no tipping, just like in the rest of Europe.

After dinner, we walked to the Leningradsky Station, a short distance from the department store. Not looking where I was going, I banged my shin hard against an iron hand truck. “We call that the first Moscow stress,” Anastasia said. I answered that it was the second, if the traffic jam from Sheremetyevo counted.

As we waited on the platform, our tickets and passports in hand, the trains from St. Petersburg arrived, and a very Russian-sounding song about Moscow started playing. It was pretty catchy and became an earworm for Cooley and me. Here’s a full version of it on Youtube, complete with the singer himself in all his 80s glory:


The express train we rode—the Sapsan—was pretty fast and a smooth ride, and we got to Petersburg in about three and a half hours. The train ride itself was sponsored by the owner of the railway, who also sponsored our plane tickets. “Imagine if the president of Amtrak sponsored a Orthodox choir traveling to America!” said Fr. Andrei.

We were greeted in St. Petersburg by a very large, boisterous and friendly man named Alexander, who is probably an important personage in the St. Petersburg Theological Academy. We also met Daniil, a young Ukrainian man who acted as Vladika’s cell attendant during the trip.

After we exited the station, we were amazed by the old-world European architecture lit up by the city lights. I would call St. Petersburg the Paris of the East, but since I have never been to Paris, such a comparison is impossible for me. A short van ride from the station brought us to the St. Alexander Nevsky Lavra, home of the theological academy and our place of rest for the next two days. We took our things to the diocesan guesthouse. At the guesthouse, our party gained another member: Alix, Nicky’s younger sister. There were two of us to a room; David and I shared Room 12. Each room was equipped like a hotel, complete with towels (which most of us didn’t bring) and other toiletries. For some reason, David and I got these neon orange indoor slippers that everyone else didn’t have.

What impressed us the most was the showers. They looked like some kind of spaceship pods, with two sliding doors, two shower heads (fixed and movable), and full-body massage jets. After this very long journey, these little comforts helped us fall asleep quickly, which was good because this was just the beginning.

Stay tuned tomorrow for:
* The first of several hierarchal liturgies
* Unexpected overeating
* Baroque churches!
* And the completion of our fellowship

* There were a number of speculations about what “PSTGU” stood for. My favorite was something like “Pittsburgh State Theological Government University.” Actually it stands for «Православный Свато-Тихоновский Гуманитарный Университет» or St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University of the Humanities.