Monday, April 25, 2005

A View Over Moscow

I’ve spent the past five days in Moscow, my first visit here in the past couple years.

Sheremetyevo airport gave us the same type of welcome I’ve received in the past – a slow and bureaucratic journey through passport control. In a city where everything else is changing as lightening speed, the only change I noticed at the airport was that the ceiling had been redone, the ugly metallic cylinders replaced by a more soothing white pattern.

I had a room on the 23rd floor of the Ukraine hotel, a 1000-room massive Stalinist structure, located across from the White House. While the food and service are still remniscent of Soviet times, the building has been remodeled into a four-star hotel and I enjoyed the luxury of the comfortable bed, the high-pressure hot shower, and of course, the view.

I’d get up in the morning and look out over the smoggy city, taking in the wide six-lane road passing through endless sand-colored buildings, the Casino boat docked on the dirty Moscow River, luxury high-rise apartment buildings, one shiny gold cupola and the Stalinist spires of Moscow State University in the foggy distance.

I spent most of my time in the hotel at a seminar, but in my free moments I was able to visit a friend and some relatives. It was nice to see people and I also enjoyed taking in a cup of tea at a real café, enjoying an elegant meal of salmon, salad, orange sherbet and chocolate truffles at a friend’s home, and working out at a modern gym.

I went to a Russian musical with a colleague yesterday evening. The theater was on Stari Arbat, a pleasant, narrow old street in the pre-tourist season. The audience was almost all Russian and the production was colorful and well-done, but hard to understand. It started out with a man on top of a giant white plastic ball, surrounded by colorful cows.

By intermission, I had no idea what the story line was, but a woman in the bathroom explained it to me. She told me that it was based on a popular movie of the same time – Happy Children. A simple shepherd meets a rich woman at the beach and they fall in love. But the woman and her mother mistake the shepherd for the son of a famous composer. By the end, it seemed as though the rich (and strange woman) ended up with a real musician, while the shepherd found himself in love with a childhood acquaintance who he didn’t appreciate before.

A few impressions of Moscow that stood out for me were: the bumper to bumper traffic, even in midmorning, the fear and disgust I felt at seeing two young Russian men beat up two other men in the middle of the day on a populated street, a bright purple Volkswagon beetle with a large tooth holding a toothbrush on the roof, the loud and constant traffic on the 6-8 lane roads, that sounded like waves crashing across an ocean and caused me to have to yell at the person walking next to me, the young girl playing beautiful music on a violin in an empty underground walkway, the way the 13th and 21st floors were missing from the hotel elevator, and the general unfriendliness of people.

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