After the somewhat sombre tone of my overeating thread, "Was it worth it?", I thought I'd relate some of the more amusing events on my wonderful trip.
I think I knew it was going to be "one of those" trips as soon as I got to the airport! As is my custom, I was last to arrive and everyone in my group had already checked in their luggage. They were waiting patiently for me so we could all go through security with our carry on luggage and then proceed to the departure lounge. While fumbling around my handbag for something while I greeted them, I came upon a pair of tweezers. As I exclaimed "Glad I found these! I'll stick them in my check-in luggage otherwise they'll be confiscated" (as I knew from experience), most of the others realized they had tweezers, nail files, manicure scissors, etc. in their carry on and handbags, which would never make it through security. Obviously you couldn't expect a gaggle of women to survive a month without such necessities, so I offered the use of my check-in luggage and everyone chucked their dangerous weapons in. There must have been at least 15 pairs of tweezers (as well as, inexplicably, a metal shish kabob skewer)!
I was feeling a tad nervous as my huge suitcase went through the x-ray machine. I saw the inspector squint his eyes a bit and furrow his brow. Whatever should I do if he questions the contents? Tell the truth or nonchalantly say "You wouldn't know it by looking at me, but I have a massive unibrow that needs constant taming."? But he merely murmured "If you have eyebrows in places I can't see, lady, I don't want to know about it"!
Strangely enough, when we got on the plane and were served our first meal, we all immediately noticed the metal cutlery with serrated edge knives (unlike North American flights with their security conscious plastic cutlery). Now really, what do you think would be more threatening? Trying to overtake a plane with a serrated knife or a pair of tweezers?
When we arrived at the hotel in Moscow, it was fun watching everyone sort through and determine which tweezers, files and scissors belonged to whom. I never could drum up the courage to ask that woman why she'd brought a shish kabob skewer though…
Speaking of the hotel, the Marriott Moscow Grand was lovely, although I had initially been shocked when I figured out how the cost was going to affect my budget
(I'm not accustomed to 5 star hotels). But it did have that great buffet and a huge swimming pool and gym (somehow I never quite found the time to use them), fabulous restaurants and bars and the rooms themselves were impressive. I swear the bathroom alone was almost the size of the motel room I stayed in last fall for Skate America in Pittsburgh. The bathroom was the setting for my next interesting experience...
That fateful morning I was in no condition to go down for breakfast (believe it or not) and when my roommate left to eat and do a bit of shopping I took advantage of the solitude to get some sleep and then have a leisurely hot shower. Like I said, this bathroom was magnificent – the tub was so deep that I practically had to straddle it to get out (and I'm not THAT short). We were supplied with the best quality soaps, shampoos, conditioners and body lotions as well as fluffy terry robes and slippers. There was a double sink and counter that had enough space to comfortably hold the paraphernalia of two females. As for the toilet, it was a porcelain throne (no handle though, you pushed a big metal button at the top of the tank). The door had shiny brass fixtures and the handle wasn't your run of the mill door knob, but a fancy lever with a large lock that clunked loudly whenever you turned it. I had locked the door that morning because I didn't want the maid barging into the bathroom and seeing me nekked, but when I tried to unlock it again, the lock just wouldn't budge! I pulled, pushed, twisted the handle, twisted the lock and threw my body against the door, all to no avail.
I didn't panic though, as there was a telephone on the wall. I picked up the receiver and the desk clerk asked how she could help. "Ermm, I'm locked in the bathroom".
There was a short silence before she informed me that an assistant manager would be "sent directly". Soon enough there was a polite knock on the room door. I yelled "Helllloooo, I can't answer the door because I'm locked in the bathroom!". He entered the room, said "One moment, please" (as if I was going anywhere) and then I heard twisting, turning and pulling noises as well as a soft grunt as he pushed against the door, followed by "I'm afraid it will not open". WELL, DUH!
He then told me he was sending for Sergei the engineer. I decided to dry my hair and apply my makeup as I waited, seeing as time was passing and the tour bus would soon arrive. As I turned off the hairdryer I heard the whirring sound of a drill and next thing I knew, the door plate popped off, fell to the floor with a loud clang and there was Sir Sergei the Liberator peering through the hole with a big grin on this face (at which point I was extremely grateful for the terry robe). I thanked him profusely and then gestured that I needed to get dressed quickly and asked if he could leave for a few minutes before fixing the door. He appeared to understand and when I ran out of the room moments later to get that bus, Sergei was standing in the hallway. As I thanked him again and gave a little wave goodbye, he called out "You are one fast woman!"
One of our first tours was to fabulous Red Square. As we approached the entrance gates, we drank in the festive atmosphere. Notwithstanding the numbing cold, tourists were milling about, locals were jaunting along to eating places, venders were out in full force selling their wares, and gypsy men played accordions while the women and children danced for coins. Then something rather strange caught our attention...a tiny boy and girl dressed in traditional Russian costume moved toward us and I was horrified to see how bow-legged they were. "Poor things are suffering terribly from rickets" I thought out loud.
As they got closer, the boy suddenly began to awkwardly run and then literally jumped on my friend and wrapped his legs around her waist! Needless to say we were shocked. The shock rose a level as we realized they weren't children at all, but freakin' monkeys (chimpanzees, in fact).
Seems that spending some roubles to have your picture taken with a monkey in traditional dress is common, but I just wanted to get as far away from these animals as possible (especially when one picked something off its forehead and ate it). We smiled at the trainer, said "Nyet, spasibo" (No thank you!) and hurried away.
Problem was, I was looking back as we bolted and just about ran into a man who was holding a chain to which was attached the largest hawk I've seen in my life (it was as big as an American Eagle). It was sitting on his shoulder and he gestured for my camera so he could take a picture of me with the feathered beast (at a price, of course). Now, those of you who know me well are aware that last summer I was bitten by a parrot at the Niagara Falls Aviary and had to have a tetanus shot, so no way did I want that creature near me! I waved my hands frantically, saying "Nyet, nyet" but the sudden movement must have spooked the bird (either that or my friend was correct when she said it looked like I was flapping wings) because the darn thing flew off his shoulder and chomped down on my forearm!
It didn't take much shrieking for the trainer to order it away and let us leave. Mind you, the sting from the sharp beak subsided quickly enough and I wasn't too concerned because I was wearing thick clothing, but when I got back to the hotel I saw the skin was broken and there was blood. I started to panic, wondering where that beak had been! I asked to see the hotel doctor (thank goodness his English was pretty good) and explained what had happened. After examining the minor wound he asked when I'd last had a tetanus shot. I explained it had been last August after having been bit by a parrot. He looked at me solemnly, suggested that I stop antagonizing birds of prey, and told me to contact him again if I had indications of muscle stiffness or fever. Being the tough old bird I am, nothing came of it, but I still have a scab on my arm.
Another health related story involves throat lozenges. I'd originally thought my sore throat was related to excessive cheering while attending the skating, but it turned out I was in store for a nasty cold by the time I got home. Anyway, I went to the pharmacy closest to the hotel but no one there spoke English. No problem, I'd look around and find something on my own. There were all kinds of bottles and boxes and I figured that even though I couldn't understand the writing, the graphics would give me some idea. I finally found an aisle that had some boxes with a picture of a human head with red fire coming out of it and took that to be headache remedy, and then saw a package with a penguin wearing a scarf around its neck. I figured penguin = cold, and scarf = throat, so I made my purchase and went back to the hotel. But when I opened it there were several foil wrapped suppositories inside.
I wasn't sure if I should try to suck on one or insert it somewhere, so I waited until it was time for the next tour and asked our treasured tour guide, Natasha, if they were for a sore throat. She stifled a laugh and explained that it was "Penguin" brand medicine for shrinking hemorrhoids!
Luckily one of our group who had the foresight to bring a large bag of Ricola from Canada offered me an unlimited supply.
One day, the tour bus was making a stop at a second convent before heading out to the arena for the men's final of the World Figure Skating Championships. My roommate and I decided to skip that tour because, while the convent we'd seen had been extremely interesting, we felt that once you've seen one nunnery, you've seen them all, so we told Natasha that we were heading out to an nearby outdoor (brrrrr) market to buy gifts. She asked how we planned on getting to the arena and I blithely retorted that we'd take the subway. She seemed horrified and exclaimed "Ohhhh, we will never see you again alive". She explained how the "Metro" was the one of the busiest in the world, with 7 million travellers a day and an extremely confusing system with many different lines that covered a vast area. My roommate is from a small town in British Columbia and I could see her lip start to quiver, but I said I wasn't worried because I'd been riding the subway in Toronto, London and Washington for years. She reluctantly told us the name of the station to exit for the arena and off we went. The market was amazing, we bought the most beautiful gifts and even though the venders expected us to barter, I was happy to pay full price because it was still so much cheaper than anything at home. In fact, I bought a beautiful cashmere pashmina with silk tassels that was almost half the price of the dinner I'd had the night before.
After our successful shopping expedition we headed for the nearest Metro station, paid our 13 roubles and got on the escalator. It went down, down, down…I couldn't believe how far down it went – I was expecting to see people with pitchforks at the bottom.
Then I remembered that the Metro stations had also been built as nuclear war shelters. To say it was busy was an understatement. I held tightly to Lee's hand as we were carried along the platform with the crowd. Finally we were able to press ourselves against the wall and let people pass as we tried to find our bearings on the wall map. The stations all had names containing upwards 30 letters and I couldn't find the one we needed, so we decided to get on the incoming train and see if we could locate its next stop on our little Metro map. As the train approached, we stepped out from the wall and let the crowd carry us into a car. Talk about being packed like a sardine - I was pressed up against a man in a manner I'm not accustomed to until at least the 3rd date, but that wasn't our biggest concern. When the train stopped at the next station we couldn't see over the bodies of all the people, so we didn't know where the heck we were, plus we couldn't understand what the conductor was saying when he announced the station.
I don't think we could have made our way off that train if we'd wanted to, so we held onto each other tightly and waited for the crowd to thin. When it eventually did, we were horrified to discover we were several stations in the absolute opposite direction from where we wanted to be! However, as I looked at the map I could see we'd soon be pulling into a station I did recognize as the one very close to our hotel that we passed every day on our way to Pushkin Square. Instead of aimlessly riding trains from one unfamiliar place to another we decided it made sense to go back to the hotel, drop off the gifts and take a cab to the rink!
We'd been warned by Natasha to always pre-order a cab at the hotel at a set price and not flag down a taxi on the street because, like pretty much everywhere, the cabbie would take advantage by driving the longest route to your destination and running up the meter. So we asked the desk clerk to arrange a cab for us. She made a couple of calls and informed us the cost would be $50(US). FIFTY BUCKS for a 15-20 minute ride?!
Well, we had no choice because there was no way I'd come all the way to Russia to watch the skating on Russian TV. We rationalized that we were splitting the cost between us and since we'd gotten such great bargains at the market we were still ahead of the game. We just hoped the cab would be decent, because we'd seen some pretty pathetic ones on the streets (one didn't have any rear passenger doors - yes, it was completely open in freezing temperatures!) Soon the concierge came to collect us and you can imagine our shock when we saw a snazzy limousine waiting! Now THAT was travelling in style.
As we approached the arena I started giggling uncontrollably and Lee asked what was going on. You see, because of the intense security at the rink, everyone has to line up outside for quite a while waiting to get in. Since figure skating is very, very popular in Russia and it was quite a coup for Moscow to get the world championships (first time since 1903), quite a few celebrities were attending the events. Limos would arrive and we'd watch from the line as Russian notables would alight and Natasha would proudly announce "THEESE is the mayor of Moscow", "THEESE is a popular television actor", "THEESE is a musical pop star", "THEESE is a prima ballerina from the Bolshoi Ballet", "THEESE is Boris Yeltsin" and so on. I was almost peeing my pants in anticipation of hearing Natasha say "THEESE is Lee and Jill"! I'll never forget getting out of that limo and seeing everyone's jaw drop - Natasha couldn't even get a word out, but Barb (from New Orleans) shouted "Holy sh*t, its Lee and Jill!". Ahhh, it was priceless.
This has rambled on too long already, but I have one more. I live in a community that tries its hardest to retain that small town feel even though we're very close to Toronto. Our local community newspaper is typically cheesy, with a monthly feature called "Beaver Trails". This is a pictorial section where people take a copy of the newspaper with them on holidays, have their picture taken with it and then send it in for publication. In many cases its cute pics of kids at Disneyland and such. George got it into his head that I should submit a picture because he doubted there'd ever been one from Russia. "NO WAY", I retorted, reminding him how many times we'd chuckled over middle-aged, balding men on some tropical beach grinning and holding the "Oakville Beaver". I wasn't going to set myself up for ridicule.
He looked crestfallen, but didn't mention it again.
When I arrived in Moscow and was unpacking my suitcase I found, in the folds of my flannel nightgown, an issue of the "Oakville Beaver" with a note attached that said "C'mon, it'll be cool and the kids will get a kick out of it xoxoxox". Sigh, who could resist that?
Problem was, every time I was looking half decent in my dress coat with snazzy matching velvet beret, scarf and gloves I'd forget the paper. Soon, it was almost time to leave and I hadn't had the picture taken yet. On one particularly freezing day, we were headed out to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. As stylish as my dress coat and matching accessories were, they just weren't sufficient to stop the shivering. So I put on ALL of my bulky knit sweaters (one on top of another), struggled into my big, puffy down vest and plopped on my head the fur Russian Army issue hat (with hammer and sickle crest) that I'd bought for George. Last and not least, I grabbed my camera and that damn newspaper. As I boarded the bus, someone shouted out "Hey, look, it’s the Michelin man" but I ignored them – after all, at least I was going to be warm.
I came home from work tonight to find George looking at pictures from Russia. The sweetheart had gone out and had the rest of my films developed for me. However, when I saw the one where I was holding the newspaper I was not pleased! "I certainly have no intention of sending that in to the paper" I snorted. George looked mighty uncomfortable as he told me he'd already scanned and sent the picture in and got a reply a few minutes later from the editor. "What...was...the…reply?" I asked through clenched teeth. He pointed to the computer and I saw "Thanks for your submission. It makes a nice change from the ones we've been receiving from tropical locales." I took that to mean publication is imminent. Oh well, once it makes the paper I'll post the link here and you can all have a good laugh at my expense.
Well, that just about covers the ridiculous, but there's still the sublime, so if you haven't already had more than your fill, I'll come back in a few days with one last thread (hopefully I'll have my pictures up by then).