From Russia With Love

Moscow Travel Blog

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From Russia With Love

How we were able to go.

The thought that I could actually go to Russia with a 3 day side trip to Stockholm, Sweden and do this for free was mind boggling to me. I heard this excited voice mail message from a fellow sign language interpreter, Lauren who said... "I've have this amazing trip for you." She said a friend of hers had to back out as the interpreter of this grand tour in July. She didn't tell me where but I was guessing either China, Russia or somewhere in South America. As I thought about the possibilities, I was kinda hoping it would be Russia. When Lauren and I talked the next day; she told me it was a 2 week tour through Russia and do I want to go? I immediately envisioned Red Square, the Kremlin, KGB agents following me around and seeing plump little old ladies in baggy paisley dresses with babushkas. "Are you interested?" Lauren asked. "Heck yeah!" I replied, "I can work that out." Wow I thought....I'm actually going to Russia! A place where I didn't think I'd be able to cross off my where I want to go before I die list. This is going to be incredible!

Lauren proceeded to tell me what I had to do and who I needed to contact. Her name is Dorothy Gardner and she has a travel company with a website: I called her on the VP (video phone) as soon as I could and we had a very nice conversation. She asked me if there was another male who could go along and share a room with me because she needed another interpreter for this trip. I thought of my buddy Ron S. who would have the best possible chance of going but wasn't sure if he could get the time off from work. He is an interpreter for the prison system here in Ohio and he has limited time to take days off. When I asked him if he could go, I was fully expecting him to say....."wow, great opportunity but I can't possibly get that much time off." However, what I heard was after the pause.... "I think I would be interested in that....let me see what I can work out at the prison and talk with my wife." I was shocked! Wow...the two Rons in Russia! They won't know what hit them.

I told Dorothy the quasi good news and she was appreciative. She then asked me if I was interested in taking an additional pre-trip to Stockholm, Sweden for the first 3 days. Hmmmm, I thought for a nano second and replied, "sure....I'll go to Stockholm too, why not?" I followed up by asking if we need two interpreters there? She wasn't sure because there was a fraction of the group going to Stockholm (17) and then we catch up with the rest of the group in Saint Petersburg (11) for a total of 28. She said she would find out if the numbers would work for me to have help in Sweden.

It took a few days but Ron S. worked it out and was set to go. I told Dorothy and she replied with.. "can he go to Stockholm too, they said two interpreters would be fine." I knew Ron was pushing it for the 2 weeks and needless to say...he couldn't stretch it out that long.

Since Ron S. didn't have his passport or Russian visa and I didn't have my Russian was touch and go for a month to make sure we had everything in order before we left. We worked it out just in time...whew!

Stockholm, Sweden and Irene.

July 10th came around quickly as I was busy getting ready to catch a plane to Stockholm by way of Chicago O'Hare. Our gate at O'Hare was jammed packed with people and I had to sit on the floor right at the gate.  I was on the phone with my girlfriend Heidi saying our goodbyes and letting her know that I will try to either e-mail her or even by some miracle, talk with her while I was gone. (I had no idea how hard that was going to be.)

As many of you know, when flying to Europe, most airlines book you on an overnight flight and arrive in the morning. This flight was no different as we arrived in Stockholm around 9:00am. I say we because on this flight i didn't know there were some members of the group and bumped into them while standing in the customs line. After going through customs, we marched down to baggage claim to collect our luggage, (always relieved to see my bag come around that turnstile) and proceeded to meet our tour guide.

We had no idea where we were going or who we would be meeting but just followed the arrows out of the baggage claim area. I did know our tour guide was Russian and was looking forward to meeting her. We were walking toward the front doors of the airport when out of the blue, we saw this lady walking towards us with a white hard cover notebook placed in front of her with the word Vantage printed in large print. As she approached, she saw quite a few of us signing and realized this was a deaf group. Her eyes were as big as two fried eggs as she blurred-ed out in perfect English "no one told me this was a deaf group!!"

Her name is Irina (she said we can call her Irene) and was brought over by Vantage from Moscow to be the tour guide of our group in Stockholm. She looked scared as she approached me and with her standing so close, I could smell her breath. She immediately thought about her predicament and said out loud to herself that this is "OK, we will make due and things will work out" as part of the group needed to go to the bathroom and others wanting to exchange their weak US dollars for Sweden's Krowns. (They are part of the European Union but like England, they have not converted to the Euro Dollar as of yet.) It was quite a scene as Irene was trying to gather us up like little ducklings; attempting to lead us to the bus. After our luggage was stowed and our butts in our seat.....we pulled away from the curb leaving Stockholm-Arlanda Airport. At this point, I hear Irene playing with the microphone then I hear her on the intercom asking...."can all of you hear me? Oh....I guess you can't!"

I am not going to spend a whole lot of time regarding our time in Stockholm but I will tell you the highlights. First of all, Stockholm is a very beautiful city that sits on 14 islands connected by bridges. The oldest part of the city is an an island in the heart of the city called Gamla Stan or Old Town that was first established in the 1300's. This is where you will see a typical medevil European town: narrow streets, quaint squares with fountains, cute little shops and old churches with spires that reach to the heavens. However, it is quite modern as well as I felt like I was in one big Ikea Store!

We toured the city by bus and stopped at the Vasa Museum where they have a ship over 300 years old called the Vasa built in the 1600's. This huge ship sank on it's maiden a matter of fact, it sank right after leaving the dock! The ship is incredible because it is shear size and in such good shape even though it was buried for over 300 years in mud right there in the harbor. When in Stockholm....go see this ship at the Vasa Museum, it's well worth the time. It is the most visited museum in Sweden.

Luckily, our hotel (Hilton) was just across a bridge from Old Town and I had some free time to explore. I enjoyed walking around this old part of the city and taking pictures of anything that caught my eye. I was lucky the weather cooperated. Sweden tends to be cloudy and grey but for our three days there, it was mostly sunny and on this day it was glorious, sunny and in the cool 70's.

When in Sweden you have to order Swedish Meatballs and I ordered them on two different occasions....very good.

English is just about spoken everywhere so if you have a problem going to a country that doesn't understand you very well but want to experience a different culture, then go to Sweden. Actually, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, the British Isles and The Netherlands are the places that won't make your blood pressure go up due to not understanding the people.

Saint Petersburg, Russia

As we were flew over the Baltic Sea and the Bay of Finland heading due east, I had some reservations of what I would experience going through customs and what it would be like traveling through Russia. It has been about 17 years since the fall of the Soviet Union and I guess some of myself, still cling to the idea that Russia still lives the way it did under Communism. In our situation however, we were fortunate to have two men (Richard and Vilas) in our group who toured communist Russia in 1982 and we would be referring to them to find out what the contrasts are from then to now.

Approaching the gate at the Saint Petersburg Airport, I had my head pressed against the tiny airplane window to get my first glimpse of Russia. The airport building looked dingey and old as we approached; I could see the sign, SAINT PETERSBURG on the roof. I had this weird feeling and didn't know why.....maybe it's because I thought the Russian people might not like us? After all, we were in a cold war and an arms race for almost 50 years.

We walked off our plane and to be honest, was surprised we had a covered walkway into the building and continued our walk to customs. It was a short walk as we were on the second floor looking down at hundreds of people in long lines,10 rows deep going through customs. Richard was looking around the inside and I asked him if it looked different, he said their was not much of an improvement. I asked him if there was a billboard like the one above our heads for Loreal of Paris in '82? He smiled, shook his head...."no." "So depending on your point of view, there is a teeny tiny improvement, right?" He laughed and agreed.

I had this vision that the person who would be checking my passport was not going to be friendly and probably make me feel like a criminal. By the time I was able to approach the customs booth, I looked through the plate glass at a women in uniform who looked a lot like Rosa Klebb from the movie, From Russia With Love.....if you know anything about the movie, she is the lady with that little knife hidden in her shoe. My fears were realized when she looked hard at my passport then looked hard at me, then looked hard at the passport again and then looked hard at me. I was fully expecting her to say something to me or send me off to a goolog somewhere but she picked up her stamper thingy and slammed it down hard on my passport then quickly tossed it back to me through the little window. Welcome to Russia!

With a population of 5.5 million, I thought the Saint Petersburg Airport was small. It reminded me of the airport in Youngstown, Ohio! (well OK...this airport is bigger but looked the same) As I stood outside the airport waiting for our bus to take us to the ship, I looked down and saw a folded Ruble note of 100! I thought, hmmmm how much is that note worth since I hadn't found out what the conversion rate is as of yet. The note was at the heel of a shoe of this guy in front of me who was in charge of putting our luggage in the cargo bay of our bus. I asked if he spoke English and he shook his no. I showed him the100 Ruble note and tried to gesture if it was his. He shook his head no again and said "Neyt." (at least he was honest) I waved the 100 Ruble note around in the air to see if there were any takers but no one claimed it. One of the members of our group told me not get too excited because it is only worth $4.25. I had to chuckle on that one. I slipped it in my pocket.

Our bus ride to the ship was not very long and when we approached the dock where our ship was located, I was surprised to see we were not in the city. The ship was on the Neva River all right but east of the downtown area and located in a commercial port that to be honest, was not very attractive. The port office building there looked like an old Ford Dealership and the buildings across the river looked like the Grenoble Nuclear Power Plant that had the melt down in the mid 80's!

The ship looked inviting however and I was anxious to board and check her out.....her name is the M/S Nikolay Chernyshevsky and it is a five deck vessel built in East Germany in 1981. (This was during the time of Soviet domination and was built by the East Germans.) The ship was refurbished recently and is equipped with modern navigation devices. In addition, she can reach speeds up to 26 km per hour (around 17 MPH). The length of the ship is 125 meters, width is 16.7 meters. (Sorry, don't know what that is in feet.) The boat can accommodate up to 265 passengers. (By-the-way....I am pretty sure the ship was named in honor of a Russian poet or writer.....they love their poets and writers.) When I walked down the ramp to board, there was a welcoming committee of musicians playing Russian folk music and a lady dressed in a colorful cultural Russian outfit and headdress offering bread for the boarding passengers to tear off and eat.

I thought maybe Ron S. would be on the ship by now but to my surprise, he was no where in sight. At the reception desk, I was given my key to our cabin and entered the tiny room. Since Ron S. was not here, I thought I would take the opportunity to unpack and get my luggage out of the way before he arrived because there was just no room for both of us to do anything let alone unpack at the same time. I peeked into the bathroom that consisted of a toilet, sink, mirror and shower head to use right there in the bathroom. I thought that at least I won't get lost in there. The cabin is a total of 105 square feet. (That is a little bigger than my bedroom closet!)

While I waited for Ron S, I went up to the sundeck on the 5 deck and met some of the Deaf passengers. I also relaxed in one of those green hard plastic chairs around one of those green hard plastic tables. I looked around and could not believe we were docked in a place that was anything but attractive or touristy. You could see Soviet style apartment buildings up and down the river, two nuclear power plants east and west with bellowing smoke coming from their smoke stacks and could not help think what it must of been like to live under the Soviet Regime. A couple of hours went by and Ron S. still hadn't shown. I received news from a tour guide who just arrived from the airport that Ron S's luggage was lost! Oh nooooo, I thought.....his first trip overseas and it is already starting out bad. Not good, he will never come over here again.

Ron S. arrived an hour later and told me his luggage was lost because of his flight from Columbus, Ohio to Chicago O'Hare to Munich was changed to Frankfurt because he couldn't get out of Columbus on time due to bad weather in Chicago. Unfortunately, his luggage was not in the cargo bay underneath his seat when he flew from Chicago to Frankfurt. He told me that the airlines were going to deliver his suitcase to the ship by tomorrow. He was happy to be finally on the ship and our trip was about to begin. Ron S. is not a person who takes alot of pictures on a trip but on this occasion, he was more like me by taking pictures of everything in sight with his new Digital Canon Elph 7.1 Pixel Camera.

The next 4 days were grueling with interpreting for Irene and the "local guides" that Irene provided us with so we could get the maximum amount of information about the area, the attractions and the culture. Irene at this point was not calling herself a tour guide any longer but one of the 6 "Program Managers" on the ship. She was now in charge of our 28 member Deaf group with the other 5 Program Managers dividing up the other 200 plus tour group. (I guess she got over her fear.) She was stressed however regarding her husband. She told us that he recently entered the hospital just before she left for Stockholm and was in critical condition. You could see the stress on her face dealing with doing her job, working with the dynamics of deaf people and that her husband was in critical condition in a hospital in Moscow.

Ron and I learned very quickly that tour guides like to talk a lot because if they do...they think they will get a bigger tip. It was hard for the Deaf group to look out the window and watch Ron S. and I interpret. Sometimes it got to the point where they just looked out the window rather than watch us (and we understood). I asked the guides if they could just slow down a little bit or keep things brief so that they could look out the window. However, their habit of talking a mile a minute for long periods of time soon kicked back in. (and trying to spell those Russian words didn't help either) They were rambling on even as we went around sharp corners seeing me hang on for dear life and not interpreting!

On our first full day on ship and in Saint Petersburg, we had a meeting to let us know what the agenda was going to be, the procedures on ship, who is who and how the tours were going to be conducted. Before it began however, one of the members of the group Emile, looked up at me and informed me that my fly was down! "Really", I asked? "Yeah" he replied with an impish look on his face. I turned around to correct the situation and to my surprise, it was up. As I turned around, Emile was laughing and said "Got you!" I smiled and told him payback is hell.

After the meeting we toured the city and ran into some Deaf people who were selling souvenirs in front of St. Isaac's Cathedral (proclaimed to be the 4th largest cathedral in the world). Our Deaf group eagerly talked with them and bought some souvenirs as well. We also stopped at another souvenir shop before heading back to the ship called Red October. Several bought expensive gifts there and the interesting thing was...the communist hammer and sickle logo were on the plastic shopping bags.

The Second tour of the day was the Rivers and Canals Cruise within the city of Saint Petersburg. I interpreted this one with Ron S. taking the afternoon off and with the weather cooperating we had a sunny day, it was very nice.

We soon realized that having dinner on this ship was going to be a very nice experience. Our dinners were displayed gourmet style and very creative. The third activity of the day was to see the evening performance of Giselle Ballet at the Hermitage Theater. Ron S. interpreted this gig as I had interpreted the Rivers and Canals Cruise earlier.

The second day was Peterhof which was Peter the Great's palace along the shores of the Bay of Finland. We boarded a hydrofoil directly from our ship and zipped down the Neva River through the city of Saint Petersburg for a 40 minute ride to the palace. Speaking of a James Bond movie, as I looked at this futuristic looking hydrofoil, I felt like I was in one of the movies as I boarded. It was pretty cool to feel the craft lift out of the water and skip across the water as buildings, trees and bridges zoom by. After we arrived, we learned that we were not going inside the palace and were going to see Cathrine the 1st's Cottage and the grounds, We toured inside "Catherine's Cottage" and the beautiful fountains that were everywhere on the grounds. The famous Cascading Fountains directly in back of Peterhof was the most spectacular.

While walking through the gardens at Peterhof, Irene and I got into a discussion regarding the Soviet Revolution and revolutions in general like our own in 1776. Irene's observations were that the only difference between our revolution and hers what that we had a Washington, Jefferson and a Franklin......"we had comparison."

After returning to the ship, Ron S. and I planned that after dinner, Ron S. would go with the group inside a small theater to see a Russian folk dance performance and I would go with Irene, Emile and Jeanette to return an item (nesting doll) to the Red October Gift Store that would walk to because it was not far away. There was a brown spot at the bottom of the doll and Jeanette wanted to exchange it for another. Irene being the perfectionist she is, felt she should go along and make sure there were no hassles. She did an excellent job of being forceful; I had no idea what the heck she was saying in Russian to the sales staff as she was talking loudly and with force. It was kinda funny. To make this short, Jeanette got her exchange and I bought a gift for Heidi.

Walking back to the theater to see the last part of the Russian folk dance performance, Irene and I continued our talk about Russia as we were walking across one of the many draw bridges over the Neva River when Irene shared with me what life was like in the Soviet days and what it was like now. She told me she has her doctorate in the arts and literature and is professor at the Moscow State University in addition to have been an interpreter for Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin! Wow I thought, she isn't your average tour guide. I asked her if she thinks communism could ever return? She stopped in her tracks as we were getting off the bridge; sternly looked at me and replied...."there would be another revolution!" She added that it amused her and her colleagues that during the Soviet years the world labeled Russia as totally communist. She said with a population close to 150 million...only 11 million were in the communist party. Most of her peers and friends were not communist and she refused on numerous occasions of excepting their offer to join the party. Every time she refused, they would offered her a larger apartment, more travel in and out of the country and a better position at the university but she told me she refused on principle. I didn't know people like this really existed. I was totally impressed by her work ethic, compassion and providing us with as much knowledge as she could share about her country. (and I don't think she was so worried about what tip she was going to get either)

The third day was visiting the Hermitage Museum. This museum is up there in stature with the Smithsonian Institution Washington, D.C., The Louvre in Paris and the Cairo Museum in Egypt. This museum is huge. Like The Louvre in Paris, this museum (created by Catherine the Great) is housed in a former this case, Peter the Great's palace.

The afternoon was on our own; Ron S. and I decided to walk around the city to find a place to eat and locate a pay phone to call his wife. As we were walking around town, I was taking pictures of a Russian car, a building here a building there and the people when Ron S. spotted a pay phone! He was standing in that booth a good while knowing full well he is not having much luck.....he couldn't get through. He was pi$$#d!

The fourth and last day in Saint Petersburg, we went to see Catherine's Palace which was one of many of Catherine the Great's Palaces she had built in and around Saint Petersburg. This palace, the largest and most huge! When we walked through the front gates, the palace wrapped all the way around us as we walked on the grounds to the front door. The highlights of the interior was a room that reminded me of the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles and the famous Amber Room with golden brown amber panels embedded on the walls. Both rooms were very impressive. From what I understand, during World War ll, the Nazi's stole the amber panels in that room and hid them in Germany for decades until the German government finally admitted they had them and returned them to Russia. By some miracle, the Soviets rebuilt the palace (and Peterhof) after the total devastation caused by the occupation of these palaces by the Nazis.

After seeing the palace and walking to our bus, I was feeling a little tired and realized I was developing a sore throat...ugh-ohhh, I thought, that is all I need, a cold. After a sore throat, it usually is followed by a bad cold....and summer colds are the worst. At this point, Ron S. and I split up as he had a group going to another palace and I was going back to the ship for lunch with my group then back into the city of Saint Petersburg to interpret a tour of Yusupov Palace where Rasputin was murdered. The highlight of that tour were the wax figures of the murderers and Rasputin himself sitting at a table demonstrating what it might have looked like when they killed him. We learned that the murderers where jealous of the connection he had with Tsar Nicolas the ll and his wife Alexi and didn't want him to have any more power than what he already had.

After we returned to the ship, we got ready for the Captain's Welcome party on the sundeck. As the ship finally left port after four days of sightseeing in Saint Petersburg, we were relieved to be on our way. We cruised on the Neva River for the rest of the evening heading northeast towards the largest lake in Europe, Lake Ladoga. The Neva River by-the-way is a shortest rivers in the world that is about 45 miles long with water flowing from Lake Ladoga to the Bay of Finland.

For your information, Saint Petersburg is approximately at the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska so the daylight hours are really extended into the evening....sunset was around midnight! The evenings around here are called white nights because at this time of year, it never really becomes completely dark during the night.

The River Cruise Begins!

First full day of the cruise, Saturday, July 19: By morning when we were ready to go up to the third deck for breakfast, (our cabin was located on the second) we had already cruised through Lake Ladoga and were now plowing the waters of the Svir River that flows from Lake Onega to Lake Ladoga. On the river banks we could see "shacks" lined up one right after the other in various places on both sides of the river. We figured they were sauna houses because the people around here are really into them. The little villages along the way were quaint with eclectic buildings huddled together along the river banks.

Our one and only stop for today was a tiny island community called Magadori. This community has artists and craft people with stores grouped in one or two buildings on the island. One little interesting tid-bit regarding Magadori is that Prime Minister Valdamir Putin has a summer home here. You can walk right up to it with no noticeable security around the house. (but I won't want to walk onto the porch)

After we had a BBQ lunch on Magadori, we boarded our ship to continue up the Svir River through several locks of which one is named after Lenin. This was the first time on our tour where we confronted Russia's Soviet past. As the water gushed into the lock to raise our ship to the level of the small lake ahead, we eagerly took pictures and videos of the hammer and sickle emblem embedded in cement on top of the two buildings located on both sides of the lock. As we reached ground level at the top of the lock, I could see a little monument of Lenin off to the side and thought to myself, what does this mean? Are they still proud of this guy or is it just something from their past that they want to preserve? (never did find out)

Second day, Sunday, July 20: This day was spent cruising up Lake Onega (second largest lake in Europe) to Kishi Island where we will have a walking tour of the island and a visit to a 300 year old Russian Orthodox church made of logs with birch shingles on the onion shaped domes that populate the top of the structure. (When it was built, no nails were used.) We also visited a farm house that had the barn connected to the house! The reason for this is because it is so cold in winter, it made sense to connect the house with the barn to better care for the farm animals. Pretty cool.

As we left port and cruised past the large church and little community on Kishi Island, Lake Onega was on the agenda pretty much the whole day as we traveled south to our next port of call, Goritsy. Heading south and cruising the open waters of the lake, this was the time where our captain invited us to visit the Captain's Bridge. He explained in Russian what this and that was with his Captain's Assistant interpreting in pretty good English. (I had my picture taken with him steering the ship.)

The evenings were about the same every night as we cruise the rivers, lakes and locks on our way to Moscow. Dinner was followed by relaxing on the sundeck or to cut down on the wind and/or sun, we ventured over to the aft 3rd deck where we have a beautiful view of river and country side. Many in the Deaf group would meet here to talk about the events of the day or learn more about each other or talk about what is on the agenda for tomorrow. I really looked forward to this time. In addition, I also looked forward to joining Ron S. at the Panoramic Lounge to belly up to the bar to talk with Eugene and Dimitri and of course have a Russian beer or for me on one particular evening....a White Russian. The potato chips looked familiar because we recognized the name, Lay's.....but not the flavors we are used to like BBQ or salt &, the flavors in Russia are bacon or crab flavored chips!

Third day, Monday, July 21: This day was devoted to lectures regarding "Modern Russia" by our Program Manager Irene, followed by another one regarding "Vodka and how to drink it." This one was presented by our bartender buddy Eugene. After lunch, we docked in Goritsy and took a bus ride to the Monastery of Kirrilov for the afternoon. This is one of the oldest and the largest Monasteries in Russia. (Ron S. and I thought the teeny town of Goritsy was more interesting.) After we returned, we had a class on how to make blini's (Russian pancakes) followed by a get-together in one of the dining rooms to eat them along with wine and red caviar.

This day wasn't quite over as in the late afternoon we had a "come and paint your own nesting doll" class. I volunteered to interpret this one but there wasn't much interpreting going on here because everyone was getting into painting their own personal nesting doll. Irene said I should get involved and paint one of my own. I was sitting down admiring what they were doing when I looked up to give her one of my "are you crazy" looks....she in turn was standing in front of me giving me one of hers. Initially, I thought no way was I going to do this but as I watched the others focus on their little doll with their tongues hanging out as they painted, I looked up at Irene; took the plain wood nesting doll that she shoved in into my hands and started to paint. She looked down at me as she smiled and said, "good."

It took me about an hour to put a face and a floral looking costume dress on this rotund doll. I went traditional with yellow, red and black trim. People came up to me surprised and said that I did a good job. Ron S. was pleasantly surprised with that little smile of his as I was putting the finishing touches. I asked......"why is it that no one ever asks you to do anything." He laughed with the reply....."I'm not approachable."

Fourth day, Tuesday, July 22: The following morning, we had classes regarding Russian Fairytales and how to sing Russian Folk Songs. In the afternoon, our ship docked in Yaroslavl where of course we would be touring an orthodox church and a walk around their square. Yaroslavl is the largest city we visited between Saint Petersburg and Moscow. From what I understand, Yaroslavl has a population of over 100,000 people and made it possible to find an Internet Cafe. I was certainly happy Ron S. found it!

Fifth and last full day, Wednesday, July 23: This was our day to visit a Russian home and experience a little bit of what their culture and home life is like in the small town of Uglich. We were not disappointed. When we departed the ship this early morning and was herded up to the street, there were about 20, 10 passenger vans lined up to take us to all points of the town. The Program Managers were frantically directing the large group to get on an approaching van but many were hesitant to go without their friends. It was pretty funny to hear Irene insist that we get on this van and your friends will be just fine somewhere else. It's not like you weren't going to see them ever again.

We had a mixture of hearing and deaf in our van of 10 people with 4 ladies from a retirement community in California. They asked me a lot of questions about deafness, interpreting, how I became an interpreter, how I got this gig and last but not least...was I married. We drove through the cute little downtown area for the short drive to the northeast edge of town. We pulled into an apartment complex built during the Soviet years and it still looked like it. It was now run down a little but clean. There were four apartment buildings creating a courtyard in the middle where I noticed vegetable gardens, flower beds planted in the middle of colorful worn bald tires and several old rusted Russian cars like the Lada parked between the gardens and a children's playground. The apartment buildings badly needed a fresh coat of paint and as I looked around while the others were climbing out of the van, many of the windows where cracked and needed to be replaced. One of the ladies from California thought out loud saying she had this vision of going to a little Dacha with flowers and a white picket fence.

A rusted brown beat up steel door that certainly didn't look like the entrance to the building swung open and a very friendly older lady marched out to greet us in Russian....@#!$%^&! She motioned for us to follow her inside and lead the way. We climbed the first flight of stairs to what seemed like the only apartment in this section. I couldn't look around much as we were hustled through the small foyer to the tiny living room where a table was set up for a place setting of 10 people. A younger lady with a beautiful big smile greeted us at the door asking if any of us spoke Russian. When we said no, she had this look of fear on her face for just a second but happily motioned us to sit at the table anyway. The living room was small for 10 to 12 people and as I looked around the room, the walls were covered with a light green printed wallpaper. The view out the patio window was covered with laundry hanging from a clothes line and inside, a shrine to Jesus and whomever Russian Orthodox Saint that they were into that were perched at the upper right hand corner of the room.

Her big smile returned while talking in Russian and we had no idea what the heck she was saying as we squeezed into our seats at the make shift table set up in their tiny living room. Well, actually, I didn't since some how, I ended up at the head of the table. We noticed that the table was tastefully set when the younger lady and the older lady quickly brought out luncheon meat (yes, in Europe, they serve luncheon meat for breakfast) cheese and coffee. We thought this was going to be it when the ladies brought out this white looking oatmeal stuff to the table. It tasted too smooth and sweet to be oatmeal and asked what it was. "It's porage" someone from our group exclaimed. I have never tasted it before and I liked it. No wonder Goldie Locks and the 3 bears were fighting over was good. One of the ladies from California asked the best way they could if the two of them were mother and daughter? Their eyes lite up and shook their heads yes at the same time. They seemed very happy.

What happens next is something I had no idea would be part of this cultural exchange. The daughter turns on a little silver CD/radio/tape player, turns the volume way up and Russian Folk Music fills the room with this guy singing at the top of his lungs. The daughter picks me up from my chair and swings me around and I guess we are doing the dosie-doe. Well I'm not much of a dancer and I had to suck it up and make the best of this crazy situation by dancing around in this tiny living room with the daughter and mother with the scarf they had draped over my shoulders. The rest of the breakfast group were watching me make a fool of myself and clapping their hands. It was quite a scene.

After breakfast, we were whisked away to the center of Uglich and guessed it, another church and surrounding grounds. This is about the tenth orthodox church I have been inside of so far on this trip and It is amazing to me to see these beautiful fresco Murial's still looking good after 300 to 400 years! As I toured from one onion domed church after another, it did bring back childhood memories of my grandfather's Serbian Orthodox Church in Youngstown, Ohio. I remember looking up at those bulbous domes and thought, why are they like that and these other churches around here are not? I was even baptized there.

After the tour was over, Ron S. and I walked around the little town before heading back to the ship. Just about everywhere we go, walking back to the ship is walking through a gauntlet of make shift souvenir booths that line the path on both sides to the gang plank. On this day I gave in to the souvenir vendors and bought a 1:24 scale model of a Soviet official limousine. (It sits on a shelf right next to my scale model of a Smart Car.) Uglich was the last stop before Moscow and was the most enjoyable stop on the trip.



Thursday, July 24: The next morning was breakfast and putting our luggage out in the hall for the crew to transfer them to our hotel. We on the other hand sat on our butts in those plastic chairs as we cruised into Moscow. We can see the progression of the countryside changing from a rural environment to little towns to suburbs and then the city of Moscow itself. Because we had to be completely out of our rooms by 10:30am, most of us were on deck to check out the sights along the way. Not sure of the cleanliness of the water but we marveled how people would put blankets along this canal that connected the Volga and Moscow Rivers. They were swimming, sunbathing, fishing, partying and I saw one lady have a moment of Zen by sitting on the edge of the canal wall with her eyes closed, legs folded, arms stretched out with middle fingers and thumbs touching. Not to mention plump, middle aged men wearing their speedos as they swam, stood with a beer in their hand or waved to the pretty women on our ship.

We reached the dock around 1:00pm where we disembarked and our buses were waiting for us to take us on our tour of Moscow before checking into our hotel at 6:00pm. We toured a monastery (of course) a cemetery where Boris Yeltsin and Nikita Kruschev are buried and lunch on a river boat.

Not sure if you are aware but air conditioning in Europe is not as important to them as it is in this country and Russia is no different. The river boat was nice enough all right and our lunch was just fine but with 85 degree temperatures making the enclosed dining area extra "warm" had so many windows that we were not able to open, we had the "greenhouse effect" in there that was pretty stifling. Ron S. had a hard time handing the situation. His comfort zone is not as wide as mine and I think it was just about a nanosecond from the time he finished his lunch to scrambling his way up to the upper deck to sightsee.

I was not far behind as Ron and I sat in front row seats watching the city of Moscow cruise by on both was glorious! Ron and I noticed on our right a replica of one of our space shuttles. It was an attraction in a small amusement park located in famous Gorkey Park on the river bank. Then what caught our eye as we approached a folk in the river was the seventh tallest statue in the world. I couldn't figure out what in the world to make of it but it looked like the Santa Maria with Christopher Columbus standing in the middle of the ship. But that's ridiculous, right?.......why would the Russian people care about a guy who discovered America?? Come to find out later when I came across a postcard in the hotel gift shop, the statue is a memorial to Peter the Great, who established the Russian Navy.

Next along the river was this red wall with turrets on our took about 10 seconds to realize that it must be the Kremlin! (Kremlin in Russian means fort.) It was weird to look at that structure and remember the black and white television imagines of Walter Cronkite standing across the river using the Kremlin as a backdrop reporting about what was going on in Soviet Union or what the Communist leaders where up to. Right after the Kremlin? Red Square came into view where we saw beautiful St. Basil's Cathedral posing front and center at one end of the square.

After returning to the dock where we boarded, we climbed back into our tour bus and took a ride to the highest point in Moscow. From this vantage point, you begin to realize how gigantic this city of ten and a half million people truly is. We can see the Moscow River carving it's way with sharp "S" curves going back and forth through this awesome metropolis. Very impressive.

Next Stop? Red Square where we had a half hour to look around and try to grasp that we are really here. I stood in front of St. Basil's Cathedral remembering that in my world history class being told that Ivan The Terrible who was so impressed by the beauty of the cathedral, ordered the eyes removed from the architect who built it.

It was time to finally head to our hotel and we were so looking forward to chilling out for awhile after a very busy hot sunny day. We took a short ride up Tverskaya Street to our Grand Marriott Hotel which is a fifteen minute walk from Red Square. When we got off the bus to enter our hotel....Ron had his little smile again as he told me he spotted a Mexican Restaurant! I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I think he could find a Mexican Restaurant in the middle of Tibet in a blizzard!

After we took an hour break to cool off and relax, Ron and I decided we wanted to eat at the Hard Rock Cafe. We went down to the congeries desk and asked where it was located. As we were going over the map with the congeries, a fellow American with a loud Hawaiian Shirt came up to the desk next to us and asked, "where is that McDonald's you got here in Russia that was the first one? It's located somewhere around here in Moscow?" The congeries didn't know what he was talking about so the fellow American followed up with...."you know, the McDonald's that had the problem with the potatoes? You couldn't make your French Fries rrrrright." I cringed and whispered to Ron S. "this is how we get labeled The Ugly American." Before we left the hotel, I found an ATM and retrieved a 1000 rubles. (which comes out to about $41.68 at that time)

As per instructed by the congeries, we set out on the streets of Moscow to find the Hard Rock Cafe. First we had to figure out how to get on the other side of the busy boulevard of Tverskaya Street. Cars literally race up and down this street and being so wide, we would get killed attempting to run across. We were looking for the metro (subway) when we came across two of the program managers who suggested that we take the bus instead. At their suggestion, we located the bus stop at Pushkin Square (Alexander Pushkin is another one of their revered poets and writers) and waited for the bus.

We were told to look for either bus line #16 or #31 and bus #31 was fast approaching. When the doors opened a younger blonde lady who was in front of us, stepped onto the bus, paid the driver and went through the turnstile to take her seat on the right side of the bus. I approached the bus driver; gave him my 1000 ruble note wondering if he could make change. His eyes lite up and speaking in Russian along with motioning me with his thumb to get off the bus......Ron S. and I stepped off the bus, puzzled on what he was telling us to do as he continued to talk in Russian. While he was talking to us, the rear side door was opening and the blonde sitting at the window, motioned us to get on the bus through the open rear side door. We had grimaced looks on our faces when she continued to motion to us by pointing to the driver, then pointing to the rear side door then pointing to us to get on! we just jumped into the bus hoping we understood her correctly and sat down wondering what the hell was going on?? The young lady motioned us to be quiet by putting her index finger to her mouth and gestured to us to relax. After the bus was moving, I approached her with a map pointed to where we wanted to go...Old Arbat Street. She looked up at me with a smile and in Russian probably said that she will let me know when we get there.

Ron S. and I sat on this city bus watching the city of Moscow whiz by as we wait for the young lady to tell us that Old Arbat Street is approaching. It was about a 10 minute ride when the lady turned around pointing to the door telling us in Russian to get off (I guess). We stepped off the bus and did not have a clue where we were in relation to which direction the Hard Rock Cafe was located on Old Arbat St.

I brought out my trusty city map of Moscow and so that we didn't look too much like tourists, I stepped behind the bus stop while I was unfolding the map. After we looked at the map and made our decision on which way to go....we walked down Old Arbat Street going west. Old Arbat St as we can tell, is being turned into a mall. The street was taken out and they were putting down bricks to make it a very attractive walkway. We noticed artists, performers, vendors and American establishments like Starbucks, McDonald's and even a Sbarro's. (But spelled in was interesting that most the American Companies still spelled their name in English with Sbarro's and one or two McDonald's we saw around the city, spelling it in Russian.)

It was a longer walk than we thought and as we past a lady who was selling in the distance we could see on the right, a huge guitar bolted to the front of the building with the name Hard Rock Cafe written on it. This restaurant is your typical Hard Rock with two floors and is fairly big. They say they are the biggest Hard Rock in Europe but I thought the one in Amsterdam was bigger.....but what do I know.

For you travelers who have been to Europe before, you know servers take their good ole' time because having a meal is part of the evening experience. Well, this restaurant took that "evening experience" way beyond what I even expected! The place was fairly empty but our meal time from beginning to end was close to 2 1/2 hours because the server just disappeared! Ron S. was surprised how impatient I was and I was surprised how patient he was.

After our meal, (which in the same amount of time we could have seen DR. Zhivago) we went down to the souvenir shop to see what they had. I wanted to buy a pin and baseball cap since I collect them. I was surprised to learn that they didn't have any caps to sell! I thought all Hard Rock Cafes had hats. However, they are celebrating their 5th year so I bought the 5th anniversary pin and a t-shirt.

The rest of the time in Moscow was spent touring the Moscow subway system, (very impressive) the Kremlin (couldn't believe we could actually go within those walls) shopping in GUM Department Store (actually a high end mall these days) and a tour with 4 members of our group going to Star City to see where the Cosmonauts train for their space missions.

I was very excited to get the opportunity to be able to terp this tour and visit this very mysterious place since it was so top secret during the Soviet years. I was thinking this was also the place where their rockets were launched but soon learned that Star City is like the Johnson Space Center in Houston and their launching area, Baikonur Cosmodrome, is in their former region of Kazakhstan which now is a separate country is their Cape Kennedy.

What surprised me most was how run down the whole facility is. It was in bad need of repair with tiles and panels falling off buildings, cement sidewalks that were very old and uneven, weeds and even trees growing out of an unfinished building that was being built for their space shuttle program they had to abandon. Even the apartments for the cosmonauts were run down and seedy with the whole area needing a coat of fresh paint and a good landscaper. They also have their version of our Air and Space Museum in there but on a much smaller scale. All in was a very interesting day touring this unique place. (I was surprised that the cosmonauts still lived in this compound and was surprised to learned that Yuri Gagarin's wife is still alive and lives in one of those run down apartments! He not only is the first Russian in space, he is the first man in space as well.)

The last function Ron S. and I were to do was attend and interpret the Farewell Banquet in the grand ballroom of our hotel. The food and drink was to be expected but what not to be expected was how we felt about each other at the end of our journey and how sad we became knowing this was it....we may never see each other again. It was an emotional moment I never even got to Ron S. Ron S. and I approached Irene before we left the room and thanked her for her support and we told her that she was awesome to work with.....she looked and said likewise. 

A fitting end of our time in Moscow was going to Red Square at dusk to see the beautiful lights. Ron S. and I took a quick subway ride to Red Square. What a beautiful sight we had with the sun which had already set leaving behind a beautiful dark purple sky with the GUM Department Store lite with small little lights highlighting the windows, arches and doors, colorful St Basil's Cathedral bathed in light, the entire length of the Kremlin wall was awash in lights and even Lenin's Mausoleum. After Ron S. and I walked around taking pictures of the beautiful lighted structures as the sunset was fading around 11:00pm, we stood there in the middle of the cobble stoned square reflecting on what we had seen over the last 14 days. In addition to the fact we were standing in Red Square and would be in our own respective homes in good ole' Ohio within 24 hours.....what a feeling.

If you made it this far in my From Russia With Love travelogue, I appreciate it and I thank you.

As Rick Steves would say......"Happy Travels!"

Ron Opatich

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