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Moscow

Ever since I knew I’d be going to Moscow, the thing at the top of my list was the Cosmonaut museum and the monument to the conquerors of space. SPAAAAAACE!

It’s probably been at least 20 years since I went to the Kennedy Center in Florida, and I know it was great but I don’t remember a whole lot about it in detail. Then of course there’s the Air and Space museum in DC which is fantastic, but I was looking forward to seeing the story from a Russian point of view.

The Cosmonaut museum was super awesome. I must have spent 2-3 hours there, and it’s not big, but it packs a lot in. I’d been worried I wouldn’t be able to read anything or get any details, but I paid for an English audio guide as well as a pass to take pictures, both for photography and to use Google translate’s instant photo translation on my phone. (Proof we live in the future – does this mean we’ll have a babelfish or a universal translator soon?!) To be honest, I’d have skipped the audio guide and just used the photo pass. The guide was annoying and slow and only an overview, and while it’s great that they have it, I preferred working out the actual labels I was interested in.

Anyway, in addition to the proud display of Soviet and Russian space achievements, they also showed what other countries had done, particularly the US, in a great cooperative spirit, which is so nice to see. One of the things I love about space exploration is that it brings countries together that are often at odds in other areas. There was, I thought, a particular emphasis in more than one place in the museum on the fact that the plaque placed by Apollo 11 says ‘We came in peace for all mankind’. And even just seeing Russian and English directions for assistance on the back of the Soyuz landing pod (a real, used one!) shows the expectation that everyone will help when necessary because it’s about humans rather than Russians or Americans or whatever. SEE, WE CAN ALL GET ALONG. In space at least.

Before I went in, I walked around the monument (which the museum is underneath) and there are lots of monuments of famous Russian cosmonauts. Including, right next to Yuri Gagarin, one of Valentina Tereshkova, which I was specifically looking for and really excited to see. It’s rubbish that it took so long AFTER Valentina to get another woman into space, but I’m happy that the USSR did put her up there, and what an awesome lady to go first. She is all about going to Mars and she’s nearly 80 now!

Aside from the cosmonauts, the Moscow Metro may have been my favourite thing about the city. the stations are amazing, and all so different. It’s pretty hard to get a proper look at them when it’s busy because no matter where you stop, you’re in the way. But pro tip: It’s all pretty empty on a Saturday morning. You can spend a long time bouncing around between stations and metro tickets aren’t timed, so you could technically be underground all day for less than 50p. I only did 2 hours at a stretch though because that’s long enough to be away from daylight.

I did go to the Kremlin because I felt like you sort of HAVE to go to the Kremlin, but I wish I’d only done the Armoury Chamber and not paid another 500 roubles to get into the Cathedral territory. I just wasn’t up for another 6 or 7 cathedral interiors. Plus it was a gorgeous sunny day! I tried for like, the 3rd time to go see Lenin’s mausoleum but it was closed again (it appeared to not have any kind of normal opening schedule) so instead I got some mulled wine and a pancake at the christmas market in Red Square and planned the rest of the day’s wandering while getting warm-booze-toasted in the middle of the day.

I had some lovely outside wanders in Moscow too. Red Square (and GUM) at night (where they kept playing the tetris song, which I found hilarious), the Boulevard ring at sunset on that beautiful Friday when I escaped the Kremlin early, Gorky Park and Muzeon Arts sculpture park on the river, where they have all the old Soviet monuments that have been removed from various places around the city. There’s a whole lot of Lenin and Stalin going on in there, but there’s lots of other non-soviet-themed sculpture in the park as well.

It finally snowed on Saturday, which made it feel like proper winter at last and gave me my first taste of the treachery of walking on snow and ice on the way to the Moscow Swing Dance Society. The blast of cold was, as always, appreciated when I exited the dance, for at least the first 3 minutes anyway.

On my last day I decided to go ice skating at VDNH because YAY and Russian winter etc etc. I’d seen the rink in Gorky Park which was impressive, but apparently the VDNH one is the biggest in the country (which begs the question, is there a bigger one somewhere ELSE?) so I HAD to go there. Turns out ice skating is like riding a bike. I’ve not been in years and years (no idea why because I love it) but I got on the ice wobbled for like, 5 seconds, and was off just fine. I’m not the best at stopping, but I didn’t fall or careen into any stray small children. I even got some good pace going. It was a good day for it too. Between that, the dancing the night before, and very little sleep in between, I was sufficiently tired out for my overnight train to Kazan.

Moscow sort of felt to me like the Russian equivalent of London. It was an interesting place to see, and there’s a lot happening, but I think St Petersburg is nicer. This seems to be the consensus among all the Russians who asked me which I preferred as well. In fact, I think some of them might have been shocked if I had said I preferred Moscow. I had just as much fun there though, and once again had absolutely fantastic hosts.

Check out the full Moscow flickr album

Start by learning ‘P’ is ‘R’, and the rest will follow

So, before I get into Russia, I just have to mention the rest of my ferry trip. It got way more interesting! After I wrote that last entry, I went up to the pub and got a very tasty pint of Helsinki Porter. I can’t have been sitting there 5 minutes, just about to bust out the kindle, when this older guy came and asked if, since I was alone, I wanted a chat. So I said of course! His name was Heimo, from Finland, and he was just on the boat with a friend for fun because, ‘hey, it’s cheaper than going to a restaurant!’ which, yes, the fare actually is.

Anyway, I told him about my trip, which was met with the usual expressions of disbelief, but he was totally into it. He’d done a bunch of traveling himself and he was super excited for me, which was lovely. He then INSISTED I come with him to the karaoke at one of the other bars. I was slightly hesitant because, ugh, karaoke, but then I was like, obviously, what else am I going to do, why on earth would I say no to this. So we went to the other bar where we met his friend and a group of girls about my age who were having a bit of a work Christmas do.

There were all of maybe 15 other people in this massive bar space with a stage and a dancefloor in front of it, and a whole lot of Finnish karaoke ensued. The girls and Heimo also sang some things in English (The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and of all things, ‘My Heart Will Go On’ to which I said surely it’s bad luck to sing that on a boat?!). They were all trying to get me to sing because, according to the girls, it’s just WHAT YOU DO on the Finnish ferry (this was backed up by Carolina and Johanna later). I said the only way it would happen was if they had ‘500 Miles’ by the Proclaimers, which they did not, so I was off the hook. But I did do some dancing with them! It was all very bizarre and wonderful. Just the sort of crazy shit I hoped would happen.

Anyway. After a day of bad weather and rest in Helsinki (and a lovely dinner with Carolina and Johanna) it was off to Russia. The border crossing was super easy as everything was done on board the train and all the train staff spoke Russian, Finnish, and English, so everything was explained perfectly. But then you get off the train in St Petersburg and it’s like the deepest deep end. They direct the international passengers directly onto the street, not even into the station. I’m SO GLAD my host Elena was there to meet me because I probably would have been a bit lost without her.

The main terrifying thing is having no grasp on the alphabet, let alone the language. So everything just feels ten times more confusing. I realise this will occur pretty much every time I enter a new country on this trip (Mongolia does use the Cyrillic alphabet but apparently it’s a little different) but maybe it’s because I’m so close to Europe that it feels that much more shocking. I have such bad memory for language learning, and even my very few words of Russian exit my brain when I’m feeling frazzled (I have had about 10 moments every day where I temporarily forget Спасибо (spasiba) – which is ‘Thank you’ and just about the only thing I know outside of ‘da’ and ‘nyet’). But I’m trying really hard to learn the alphabet so that I can at least read things properly. I’m about 3/4s of the way there. I basically just try to read every word I see to myself, and use the things that are in both Latin and Cyrillic to help me. Also, all the Western brand names are written in Cyrillic (Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King, etc) which does help me fill in the blanks because I know what they say already.

It’s quite nice to witness my brain building new connections, because I’ve been here 4 days and I AM learning. Slowly, but it’s happening. Immersion! It works.

I also fully realise it’s ridiculous to expect myself to know all the languages I’ll encounter, but I have this native-English-speaker guilt that I don’t know any more than English. If I maybe knew ONE other language (HTML does NOT count) I’d probably feel a little better about things, but to be so privileged to speak a language that so many other cultures learn as a second (and sometimes third or fourth), it feels so lazy to not know more. I really, REALLY wish ALL English speaking countries required kids to learn a second language from the time they start school. The world would be a much better place. And it would be easier!

In any case, all I can do is make my best effort. And I do. And of course ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ are ALWAYS first.

That first day was immensely tiring. I did wake up at 5 to get the train, but that combined with brain-working-overtime and new country anxiety is a recipe for pure exhaustion. I didn’t exactly take it easy. Elena took me home to drop my bags and have a shower, then she made me an AMAZING breakfast of fried cottage cheese cakes with sour cream and jam, then some tea and meat and bread (this was the first of MANY incredible breakfasts). She then helped me out with maps and metro stuff and a few other basics, then sent me on my way into town to the Hermitage since it would be dark soon and I might as well do something indoors.

So, I was off. The metro is relatively easy as everything is colour coded and written in Latin and Cyrillic and it’s just a metro. I’ve not yet encountered one that’s not workable. But then I got off at Nevsky Prospect and luckily went in roughly the right direction because the tourist maps were not really computing in my head and everything was so jaw-droppingly gigantic and Russian. When I saw the Church of Our Saviour on the Spilt Blood down one of the streets I quite literally did a double-take. It was like seeing the Sydney Opera House for the first time in real life – you can’t quite believe something you’ve seen in a bunch of pictures is a real thing in your sight-line.

In my tourist haze, I made it to the Hermitage, which is pretty much the top of every St Petersburg list. And it is big, big, big. Bigger than big. There is so much art in the place I almost stopped seeing it. The detail in the doorknobs alone could fill its own museum. (My favourite was an eagle talon holding a red ball of glass. I don’t know why I didn’t take a picture. It was fucking cool.) The floors and the ceilings and every bit of each of the rooms were at least as interesting to me as anything they contained. And boringly, one of the things I kept wondering about is how on earth they keep it all so clean. And how it must cost a FORTUNE to heat, especially here. (I’m definitely British now.)

I don’t really do well with excessive museum-and-gallery-going, and I hit my saturation point in the Hermitage pretty fast. Tour groups with selfie sticks (AGH!) and people taking more pictures of the art than actually looking at it never help this. And then I start questioning how we as a culture make decisions about what to preserve, and why so much of it, and are people really paying attention to it, especially now that they seem to just take pictures of it instead. (Do they ever even LOOK at those pictures if they can’t be bothered to look when they’re IN the place?) This is not to say preserving things isn’t worth it, but where do you start and stop? We can’t save everything forever.

On the other hand, what I usually take away from such massive collections like this and the Louvre and the Met and all, is just LOOK at what humans are capable of. There is such unbelievably detailed and skilled craft and art on display in these places in such quantities. There is some bad shit going down in the world right now, and it’s nice to be reminded that we as a race are fucking amazing. Why any one of us could then decide to turn around and shoot someone capable of such creativity boggles my mind, but at least there’s plenty of proof in the world that we do some good stuff.

Speaking of which, THE FOOKIN’ BALLET. (Thanks to Billy Elliot, I can’t actually hear the word Ballet without that happening in my head. SORRY.) After a somewhat terrifying first experience ordering food (Russian fast food to be precise. Pancakes!), I went to the Mariinsky Theatre to see my FIRST EVER Ballet, Don Quixote. I, in my hiking shoes, jeans, and wool hoodie, had an amazing seat in an amazing theatre among all sorts of fancily dressed people. It was so impressive. It was 3 hours long! Those dancers have some superhuman talent. And muscles. I honestly thought some of them couldn’t possibly be real. And a full live orchestra is such a lovely thing. AND there was even a horse and a donkey! (They were not dancing.)

At the end of the night, I managed to find a whole different metro stop in the cold and windy rain and get back to Elena’s in one very tired piece. There was then fruit and tea. She has Twinings English Breakfast tea and did not tut at my request for milk. This cup solved all my immediate problems – further proof I’m a fully assimilated Brit.

I then slept like the dead for 10 hours on a golden couch. And that is how you do a first day in Russia.

Paris, part two (I am so very full)

A bit of our dinner at Le Dauphin.

A bit of our dinner at Le Dauphin.

So, go back out last night I did, and I ended up at Le Dauphin. This place was amazing. It’s apparently the tapas-y offshoot of a much fancier, more expensive restaurant a few doors down. It was a little pricey, but seriously worth every Euro penny of it. Plus we shared everything so I got to try ALL THE THINGS. And I basically just let Elisabeth and Noura pick what we got, right down to the wine, so I got traditional French stuff as well as good twists on various meats. They did something MAGICAL to fresh mackerel. And the French original that a deviled egg is modeled on is a thing of pure transcendent joy, I’m telling you.

I never imagined in a billion years I’d end up in a place like that, so, that’s why it’s good to know locals.

It was a late night, ending with Japanese whisky, a metro home, and battling with the wifi to try to get some images on the last post then ultimately giving up and passing out from exhaustion and drink. I stayed in bed til about 9.45 this morning and popped out to grab some breakfasty things (including more pastry) before having a coffee with my lovely airbnb host Mathilde and going out to face another day of walking. This time in my trainers, which was such a good plan.

Today my wandering was accompanied by Dramophone on loop in my head. Perhaps slightly more appropriate than Alan Cumming (considering Cabaret is based in Berlin). Caravan Palace ARE French after all. And Thursday is usually Lindy Hop day.

On various recommendations, I went over to the 19th and 20th (‘the Leith of Paris’) and wandered through Parc des Buttes Chaumont, down through Belleville. I got an amazing sandwich from a boulangerie just across from the park in Belleville where they totally upsold me to the best meal deal I think I’ve ever freaking had. Basically, they were like, if you buy a sandwich, you can pick ANY OF THESE AMAZING LOOKING DESSERTS for sometime like 50 cents or so less than they usually are. And I was like, UM, YES, WHO SAYS NO TO THAT?! I got a massive slice of vanilla rhubarb custard tart with my cheese, walnut, honey and rocket sammitch. Then I sat outside in the park and ate the sandwich incredibly slowly because I was still kind of full from the night before, not joking.

THIS SANDWICH THOUGH.

THIS SANDWICH THOUGH.

After struggling to finish my lunch (I saved the tart for later), it was on to Cimetière du Père-Lachaise where all the famous folk are buried. I’m not terribly interested in most famous people, and least of all Jim Morrison, who most visitors seem to be after if the graffiti in the ladies toilets is anything to go by, but I did seek out Oscar Wilde’s grave. Because: Oscar Wilde! I don’t know if Jim Morrison’s is glassed off because I didn’t see it, but I was kind of disappointed that people had treated Wilde’s so badly they felt the need to seal it up. I love the choice of poetry snippet on the back from The Ballad of Reading Gaol. It’s also incredibly bizarre that this has popped up again just now because another passage from it is mentioned in Alan Turing’s biography as the way he broke off his engagement with Joan Clarke (I am STILL reading it, it’s a slog but worth it) and I just read that particular bit on the plane the other day. Coincidences!

P1010505

The back of Oscar Wilde’s grave.

The cemetery was a nice place to wander around. The columbarium in particular was lovely. My grandfather is in the one in Arlington which is all very military and uniform, so I’d never seen one that had such creative and varied markers. I don’t have pictures because I feel weird taking pictures of that stuff, but people obviously put a lot of love and thought into the small square they got as a marker.

I then metroed to Bastille and did some window shopping and wandering round a Paris department store. The kitchen floor! They had a whole AISLE full of CHEESE TOOLS. And the stationery and art supply floor! Eeee. Man oh man, I have no idea how I managed to NOT buy anything. Some kind of mad self-control.

I nipped back to home base to regroup and eat some bread before heading back out post-sunset to see the Eiffel Tower. I have to say, I am so, so happy to live in a city where I am not obliged to ride an public transportation at rush hour. The sardine-like nature of the Paris metro is almost unbearable. The only thing that makes it survivable is knowing I don’t have to do it more than a few times. Yeesh. It’s almost worse than London too, because you don’t get the orderly, queue-obsessed Britishness of MOVING DOWN THE CAR.

Sparkly.

Sparkly.

But I digress. Eiffel Tower! I managed to round the corner from the Trocadero metro JUST as they were lighting it up at 7, which was pretty awesome. It goes all sparkly for 5 minutes every hour. I opted not to go up in it because it’s expensive and the queue was massive, but that was fine, because looking at it from outside is great. If I had the energy I would have maybe done the walk-up-stairs ticket just to see the construction of it all from the inside. But my feet are pretty dead from two full days of tromping about, so I just admired it from many angles. Then I wandered away along the river to get the metro back for an early night. One thing I did notice when staring back was that the spotlights at the top of the tower are actually 4 different lights timed to look like one rotating light shooting out from both sides. For some reason this fascinated me, probably because I bet most people don’t pay attention long enough to notice it.

I could have stared at this for hours.

I could have stared at this for hours.

I’ve had an early night tonight to regroup and rest my feet and stomach (bread, cheese and tomatoes for dinner – couldn’t handle much more). Tomorrow I’ve decided I will indeed hit the Louvre before jetting back to London. It seems wrong not to.