2002-07-21 2:57 PM
Catching Up, Part II

Home at last!

Our apartment, as I mentioned in my last update, is in one of the newest buildings in Lytkarino, a suburb on the southeast side of the Moscow sprawl. With traffic light and Valodye at the wheel, the drive was smooth and very tolerable. I amused myself by trying to read the various signs in the short time before they flashed by, stumbling only slightly over my Cyrillic.

Moscow is surrounded by beltways, and this is how we got out of town. The turnoff for Lytkarino took us through a small patch of farmland, and then immediately into the forest, sunlight filtering sideways through the trees, until we came to the small road leading into Lytkarino proper, marked by a large steel hammer-and-sickle. Valodye piloted us expertly around potholes, pedestrians, and competing vehicles, and dropped us off on our doorstep. It was getting close to ten o'clock at night, and the sun was still shining in a blue sky.

The rest of my evening with my wife is none of your damn business. Suffice it to say that, if the phone line had been connected yet, we would have taken it off the hook.

We slept in the next morning. Enough said.

The afternoon of my first full day in Moscow was filled with paperwork and rushing around. We have a car, but I wouldn't be allowed to drive in Moscow until my international driver's license had been translated and notarized, and there was also the matter of my alien registration to take care of. Valodye picked us up and took us into the city, squired us around while we ran errands, and showed me the Moscow Metro while Olga stood in lines and took care of business. He doesn't speak more than a word or two of English, but we managed to communicate alright without the benefit of translation, and had a very satisfactory little outing. Val is a very good egg and a stout companion, the kind you always want to have watching your back.

The Metro... well, it's just amazing. I've ridden subways in many a North American city, all over the States, in Canada, and in Mexico, but the Moscow Metro floored me. I have always raved about how great the system is in Mexico City, and will never forget seeing a genuine Aztec pyramid looming over me in a Mexican subway station, but Moscow beats even that, hands down. For starters, it's cleaner than any other subway system I've ever seen. There was no evidence of rats, no graffiti, and no telltale smell of urine. The trains run remarkably often, so there's very little waiting involved. The tracks are very deep below ground level, but there's an escalator to take the pain out of the descent and ascent. The escalator ride itself was pretty impressive -- I can't recall ever seeing such a long escalator before, anywhere. If not for the crowd of people there to cushion any bodies falling from above, I might have been afraid of being overcome by vertigo. The escalator, however, is nothing compared to the stations themselves. We took a few hops here and there, and Val showed me around. Each station was different, each was amazingly beautiful, and some were just plain mind-blowing. They're like art museums with trains running through them. Go to Google, do a search, and look at some pictures sometime... do you know anywhere else in the world where the subway stations have stained glass, chandeliers, eye-popping statuary, and ceilings covered with fine art?

The next day, we still had a lot of errands to run, and Valodye was out of town on business. I took a chance and made the decision to drive into town, in spite of the fact that my license was not yet in order. We had a bit of a bad moment when I was pulled over for allegedly running a red light (a fiction devised by the police extortionists who stopped us). My documents were checked, and I was informed that the fine would be ten U.S. dollars, payable directly to the cops. A hasty conference later, the fine went up to thirty dollars (there were three of them). Being too green to know how to fight back, I meekly paid up and went on my way. If my documents had been in order, and I had known everything I know now, they wouldn't have gotten a cent. Money talks here, and it talks very loudly and persuasively. Putting a cop in prison is merely a matter of getting his badge number, and presenting the right official with a gift of the appropriate size. I don't actually have that kind of money, but the cops who robbed me didn't know that, they only knew that I was American, which they automatically equate with being wealthy. A cold smile, a conspicuous taking down of badge numbers, and a thinly veiled threat would probably have gotten me turned loose scot-free immediately.

Our apartment was only minimally furnished when I arrived, so we spent most of the rest of the day (and most of the next day) shopping at IKEA. There are two IKEA stores on the main beltway, one of them right in front of the WWII monument I mentioned in one of my updates a while back -- the one with the antitank "hedgehogs" featured prominently. The bed we were sleeping on, actually a fold-out couch with a broken back, resembled some sort of Procrustean torture device, and I was eager to find something better as soon as possible. Thanks to the difficulties I had with my American Express traveller's checks (by all means, take them to Western Europe, but if you come to Russia, just bring cash), it took us two days to actually purchase our new bed, plus some other items, like a pair of wardrobes and some shelving for our hallway.

After our second day at IKEA, when we had made all the necessary arrangements to have our furniture delivered, we drove through the center of Moscow and I got my first good look at the Kremlin. Red Square was full of tourists, beggars, wandering alcoholics, gypsies, nuns, con artists, couples in love, and policemen. A young couple asked us if we spoke English, and then tried to convince us that we were on Russian television via hidden camera, and had won some prizes. They put a bag filled with extremely cheap and crappy sundries (an electric razor, some perfume, etc.) into our hands and asked us to wave for the camera, then told us that we would have to pay a small tax on our prizes. The "tax" they were asking for was something like $75 at that day's conversion rate, and I laughed so hard that it didn't occur to me to just keep the "prizes" and tell them to go stuff it. I gave everything back, and we went on our way... but if it happens again, they're going to lose their bait.

We didn't stay long at the Kremlin (Lenin's Tomb and St. Basil's were closed), so I'll write more about that, and about GUM, when I've had a better look.

We spent one more night on our Torquemadean sofabed before taking delivery from IKEA and setting up the new bed. Since it hurt so much to keep sleeping, and there was no inquisitioner handy to take my confession and put me out of my misery, we got up early. I put on a pair of shorts and my 24-Hour Church of Elvis t-shirt, and we took a short walk through the forest nearby, where the locals line up to gather fresh clean springwater from pipes driven into the ground. It takes about ten minutes to walk from our apartment to Valkush Lake, a former sand quarry which has a reputation as one of the three cleanest lakes in the Moscow area. The water there is clear, cold, and deep, wonderful for an early morning swim, and full of small fish that have no qualms about swimming near people. We swam across the lake and back, towelled off, and headed home, having established a routine that will last all summer.

Once my documents were in order, Olga and I loaded up our little green Zhigouli and drove down the M5 to Nikolsk, a small town near the southern city of Penza. Olga's uncle has an apartment in Nikolsk, and a little dacha on the outskirts of town, and we went there to commune with nature, pick some berries, and retrieve our daughter, who had made the trip with her grandmother several weeks earlier.

I don't recommend driving in Russia to any but the most experienced motorists, Russian or American, and heartily urge you to take the train if you ever have occasion to leave the city, and the Metro if you want to see Moscow. Trust me, the highway system in Russia is a nightmare you don't ever want to have, and driving inside the city is even worse than the horror of the open road. Fortunately, the rail system goes everywhere, and in the city, extensive public transportation in the form of the world's finest subway system, augmented by countless shuttles, trolleys, and buses, is cheap and easy to use? so take my advice: if you aren't an expert driver, and your killer instincts are not honed to razor sharpness, don't get behind the wheel in Russia.

Having given you this advice, I hope you won't think me too much of a hypocrite when I tell you that I drive in Russia every day. As a very young man, I worked as a courier in San Francisco, doing battle with some of the ugliest traffic in the States, risking life and limb forty hours a week on bicycles, astride motorcycles, and in delivery vans. I have also done stints as a long-haul trucker, driving big rigs throughout North America in all kinds of weather, road, and traffic conditions. I've earned my bread as a taxi driver in Los Angeles and Baltimore, and I've logged a couple of hundred hours in small planes. Even this wealth of experience, however, would not be enough if it weren't for the oversized brass testicles, nerves of spun diamond, and sheer Celtic cussedness with which God has seen fit to endow me. If circumstances allow, I always prefer to speak softly and politely and wait my turn, but I can be an aggressive son of a bitch when I need to be -- and as an habitual navigator of Moscow's highways and byways, I often need to be.

Russian driving boggles the American mind. The things I have seen on the streets of Moscow would make a hardened Manhattanite tremble and weep like a little girl from Des Moines. Is it the influence of Western television that makes them drive this way, or maybe something in the water? It wouldn't be so difficult to fathom if it weren't so out of character for the people one meets socially. I mean, nobody expects New Yorkers to drive politely -- New Yorkers are commonly perceived as being a little on the pushy side, and a certain amount of rudeness just goes with the territory there -- but in my experience, Russians in general (even Muscovites, once you've been introduced) tend to be fairly sweet-natured people, exceedingly generous to visitors, and possibly the best hosts on the planet. Even more curious in light of their driving habits, the average Russian seems at least as intelligent as the rest of the world's citizenry, and is certainly better educated than the average American... but put a Russian behind the wheel of an automobile, and a strange transmogrification takes place, a Jekyll-and-Hyde metamorphosis that subtly twists his mind into a new and monstrous configuration that causes him to operate his machine like some half-witted devil, gasoline-addled and hell-bent on the death and damnation of himself and everyone around him.

Part of the Russian driving mentality can be explained by the social custom of being utterly indifferent to anyone to whom you have not been formally introduced. This behavior is well known to New Yorkers and the residents of other very large and crowded American cities, but in America, unlike Russia, it's far from universal. Residents of the more spacious areas of the U.S. are, for the most part, relaxed and friendly with each other, whether they've been introduced or not. Even in San Francisco, where the population density is quite high, strangers often exchange pleasantries and casual introductions, and the socially adventurous find it very easy to make fast friends there. American Southerners, even in the city, place a high value on good manners, and are quick with a smile and a friendly word to kinfolk and stranger alike... but in Russia, strangers are strangers wherever you go, and in crowds, they are to be pushed, shoved, and brushed aside as necessary, without apology. This insight makes perfect sense of the rank opportunism and furiously competitive rudeness that typifies the Russian driving style, but it does nothing to shed light on the complete and total animal stupidity exhibited by motorists here, which is nothing short of suicidal. I reiterate: these people are intelligent, well educated, and sophisticated in their manners, but they drive like retarded, terminally depressed chimpanzees on a crack-fueled kamikaze mission to destroy Earth.

Several factors compound the problem of psychotic Russian driving, and these factors include the status quo, which dictates that expensive cars (possibly driven by banditti) are often given right of way over cheap cars, and, more importantly, the profound condition of disrepair in which many of the roads languish. These two factors are inversely proportional to each other: in Moscow, where many banditti sport police-style flashing lights on the tops of their expensive cars, the municipality appears to be patching the potholes and repaving the played-out stretches with acceptable efficiency and regularity in spite of the generally bad state of the economy, and even making upgrades, such as drawing lines on the pavement. In the rural areas, where there's no money to speak of for banditti to extort, skim, or just plain steal, the roads vary from moderately bad to positively lunar and beyond.

The concept of individual lanes on the road is fairly new here, and the locals are still getting used to driving between the lines. Some of them do it reasonably well, some do it quite badly, and others just ignore the lines altogether and drive the old-fashioned way, avoiding the other automobiles and calling that good enough. When the traffic is heavy (and that's all the time, in Moscow), it's common to see drivers steering their cars blithely between the lanes like great metal wedges, straddling the white line for miles, driving on the shoulder, and even, if just one of them is bold enough to take the lead, to misappropriate one or two of the lanes rightfully belonging to opposing traffic, which is also ridiculously heavy and driving too damn fast. This supremely idiotic tendency of Russian drivers to blindly stuff their vehicles into any possible space that is so much as a single millimeter forward of their proper position in line frequently causes insanely large and smoky traffic jams where only moderate slowdowns would occur otherwise. I say 'smoky' because there seem to be no real regulations on vehicular emissions here. Older trucks and cars spew out pollution like fishermen tell lies, making a traffic jam of any duration an eye reddening, lung searing, brain damaging proposition.

Our 750-kilometer trip took us deep into the wild, far and away across the great plain, following the M5. M5 is what passes for a major highway in this country, but there are long stretches of neglected asphalt along the way that strongly resemble the terrifyingly undriveable roads of Louisiana, which has the best food and the worst paved roads of any State in the Union. M5 narrows and widens capriciously as it snakes and rollercoasters its way southeast through the awe-inspiring forests, farmlands, and townships of rural Russia, a land of heartwrenching beauty whose sweeping pastoral landscapes, charmingly dotted with crumbling hamlets and ancient derelict churches, beguile the eye and soothe the soul? but for most of the ride, the stunning scenery only serves to distract the driver and break the intense concentration necessary to navigate the ruts, steer around the potholes, and take evasive action against the other drivers (many of whom are blind drunk truckers) as they weave their way eccentrically across the pavement and routinely use the oncoming lane to pass at high speed on blind curves, on hills, in designated no-pass zones, and in every other outlandishly ill-advised location imaginable. The ornately decorated gravesites of people killed in automobile accidents are a monotonously regular (but entirely unheeded) roadside reminder.

Motorcycles are much more common in the country than they are in the city, and many of them sport sidecars. We saw quite a few of them on the journey to Nikolsk, and I'm quite sure that they are the only vehicles on the road that are driven in a purely defensive manner. To Russians, the outdated Soviet-era hogs one sees in the outlands are highly uncool, strictly for cash-strapped country bumpkins who can't afford the luxury of a car or the expense of a new Japanese crotch rocket, but I have an incurably American sensibility when it comes to old bikes, and I really don't care what anybody else thinks of my taste in two-wheelers. An orgy of curious rubbernecking has engendered within me a deep if newfound love for the heavy-duty Ural, and I firmly intend on buying one and fixing it up in time for next year's riding season. The locals may think of it as a mere utilitarian farm pig, but they don't know what they've got: it may not be flashy, but by American standards, the Ural is a class ride of the old school, a wicked sled for lifers only, low and slow, easy on the chrome, and loaded with fatboy charm. I spoke at length with an iron-assed old Russki biker, one of the few who rides two wheels when he could easily afford four, and he proudly showed me his 'cycle and gave me some tips on finding one of my own. In spite of the unfavorable attitude that most Russians have toward old motorcycles (and old cars, and inexpensive cars -- the Russian status quo is inextricably connected with car culture), this man truly loves his faithful old iron horse, and has nothing but disdain for automobiles. He's ridden the same Ural since it was new more than thirty years ago, and swears that it's an absolutely bulletproof machine, designed tough and built honestly. It's got a lot of the look, sound, and low-slung heft of an ancient Harley-Davidson, the kind that my grandfather rode in the 1930s, although the engine is designed differently, being a BMW-style sideways reciprocator rather than the V-twin so typical of Harleys. According to my biker friend, I can pick up a shabby one for about fifty bucks American, and one in good shape, with sidecar, for seventy.

We pulled into Nikolsk near sundown, right at the beginning of the long, persistent twilight that deepens every summer day so delightfully at high latitudes. It's a small town, centered on a public square containing a system of boxy concrete fountains and the obligatory statuary honoring, in abstract, the generic proletariat and the generic WWII soldier. The lifeblood of Nikolsk is glass and crystal, manufactured on the outskirts at a huge Soviet-built plant slowly dilapidating under the eternally watchful but now irrelevant eye of another piece of statuary: old Vladimir Ilyich Lenin himself. All Soviet manufacturing plants were given names, and this one is known as Red Giant. The Giant's detritus is everywhere, from the smooth amorphous hunks of castoff that litter the edge of the forest to the decorative multicolored crystalline walkways of the dachas that grace the edge of the town.

My wife's uncle lives just off the public square, on the third floor of one of those exaggeratedly solid apartment buildings constructed in Stalin's time. His building is a monument to overkill, with fifteen-foot ceilings and walls a yard thick. Uncle is just a little fellow, not much more than five feet tall, with a fringe of hair standing like a stockade around the gleaming dome at the crown of his head. He reminds me powerfully of a bust of Voltaire I once saw. Uncle is a collector of encyclopedia, so we brought him an addition to his collection, a large tome (in Russian, of course) called 'Americana'. He seemed very pleased by this gift, and as we sat and drank chai with lemon, his always-busy hands kept straying to the cover, eager but too polite to immediately throw open this new treasure and begin scooping out the shining secrets within.

My wife's mother, who is Uncle's sister, was there too. Since our daughter was born she has ceased to be 'Mama' to anyone, and is now known in our little family as 'Babushka'. Like her brother, she's not very tall, but there's nothing squat about either of them. They are quick and slender, and have, even in their golden years, something of that elfin quality that marks the more attractive breed of Russian. Like many people raised entirely under the Soviet system, they tend to be quiet even when arguing.

Finally, I was reunited with my daughter, Leah. She's just two, and very precocious; but what a terrible, terrible two she is. Having been ministered to by all around her for her entire life, the little shrimp is convinced that she is the one and only Czarina, the Almighty Empress, unchallenged light of the world, and absolute ruler of all she surveys. She goes everywhere and does everything with a bold confidence that belies the dampness behind her ears, and she is cowed by nothing and no one. Her body is straight and she is surprisingly strong, stronger at two than many three year olds, and her face is an echo of mine and of my mother's when we were children. When she is sweet, she is sweet as pie, and when she scrapes a knee or stubs a toe or bumps her little head, she is tough as nails; she only ever cries in anger. This little girl is the biggest pain in the ass I have ever had in a lifetime full of pains in the ass, and I love her absolutely and unconditionally.

I'll write more about our time at dacha later. Olga's waiting for me to take her home so we can meet with some friends for dinner.