This post is copied from the journal I kept while traveling in Russia with the intention of being able to look back at it years later and be able to remember small, long-since forgotten memories of my first international trip and dream come true.
It is raw and unedited with the exception of changing my husband’s name. Some posts in this series may be very short, some may be too detailed and some may be flat out unentertaining. I may interchange past and present tenses, have run-on sentences, have strange wording and just generally not meet my usual writing standards.
The experiences and thoughts I share are those of a sheltered, small-town southern girl, and what I mean to relay by this statement is that my observations while traveling to, in and from Russia may not be specific to the cities, countries, cultures and/or people I mention.
The FIFA World Cup is the largest sporting event in the world and therefore brings together people of different races, nationalities, cultures and backgrounds. I may reference these races, nationalities and cultures when talking about people and situations I witnessed and do not intend to stereotype or offend anyone.
The shower I took this morning was the best I ever had.
I took me a few minutes to communicate what I was needing when I called the front desk asking for a razor, but I got it across. They gave me a little “shaving kit” for ₽100, but at least it was something. I used the hotel hair dryer, which turned off after every 20 seconds or so and did my makeup as best I could to hold up to the Moscow girls. I took out my new straightener and plugged it up to the adapter, and it made a lot of noises and got really hot until I finally just turned it off. I hope I didn’t ruin it.
We finished getting ready and took a while to figure out which station we needed to go to in Moscow.
We walked downstairs, checked out and had breakfast in the hotel restaurant. The menu had Russian on the front and English on the back. We chose pancakes, which were served with light yellow honey, and bacon, which was severely undercooked. We asked for water, and the waitress brought two bottles and poured them into glasses for us. The water was lukewarm.
The waitress did not acknowledge us other than bringing our food and water, and though she did her job well, she did not seem very happy. We finished, told her cпасибо and received a blank look, and we walked out the door with our bags on our backs.
A man was working outside with the same dog from last night close by. We had asked one of the ladies at the hotel how to get to the train station. She gave us a map and circled where we should take a bus to the metro and then to the train station.
So, we walked about a minute and stood at the bus stop trying to figure out exactly what to do. Finally, the bus number we needed stopped. We boarded and the bus took off while we stood behind the gate confused until I asked the passengers at large if anyone spoke English. A small group of college-aged kids said yes, and I asked what to do. Two of them stood up and used their bus passes to let us behind the gate.
We sat on high seats, bracing ourselves every time the bus hit a bump or went around a curve. I watched in regret as the young Russian coeds departed at their stop, wishing I had asked how we need to go about it on future rides. We took their lower seats after they got off the bus and looked around, trying to translate as much Russian as we could with our phones.
After about ten minutes, Ron started getting a little antsy not knowing how to read the city names flashing on the screen below the ceiling. We made a snap decision to get off the bus until we could figure out what we were doing.
We got off in a small town and looked at a map for a long time while trying to find out anything on our phones that could help us. After a while of getting nowhere, we arranged a Yandex Taxi – a company in Russia similar to Uber and actually took our credit cards. After walking up and down the street, Ron trying to communicate with him on the phone, we found our driver and got in.
I started journaling then realized I was missing a prime opportunity to view Moscow and its surrounding area, so I put my journal up and started looking out the window. It wasn’t long until I was fast asleep with my mouth wide open.
I woke up a couple minutes before the driver pulled into the parking lot of the train station, impatiently pressing the button when the parking pass didn’t automatically come out. We gathered our bags out of the trunk with his help, said cпасибо and received пожалуйста in response, and we were on our own again.
We headed into the train station, straight up the entrance steps, through the security scanners and walked to the left to the information booth set up with English speaking FIFA volunteers. They gave us directions to the cloakroom where we could pay to store our luggage. Through the doors, to the left and through more security scanners we went, turning right on the train platforms and down the stairs to the cloakroom, a dark underground room with windows hosted by large, domineering men.
We chose the first window we came across, the gateway to a large room full of shelves and luggage and operated by a large, dark-haired man dressed completely in black with the exception of his stark white shoes.
A Peruvian couple was at the window finishing their business as we joined the line, and we started talking to them, our words gushing out in relief of having someone to speak English with. They mentioned they were leaving their large backpacks in the cloakroom until they got back from Saransk since it’s such a small city and may not have a cloakroom.
This threw us for a loop. We paid ₽500 to store our bags for one day, using our day bag to store our electronics. Then deciding it would be best to follow suit, we asked for our bags back – all while using Google Translate on our phones by taking turns typing what we needed to relay. We sat in the floor and got out only what we absolutely needed for the two train rides to and from Saransk, as well as the game. We were panicked while transferring things – clothes, toiletries, chargers, etc. – to a bag barely large enough to fit any of it.
We handed our large backpacks back to the attendant and told (typed) him three days, to which he responded ₽3000. We told him we already gave him ₽500, and he laughed and again said ₽3000. A feverish Google Translate battle ensued, until he finally understood that we were telling him we already gave him part of the money. His face settled as he told us извините. We smiled, received our luggage number ticket, walked up the stairs, back through security and onto the street.
From there, we were absolutely clueless as to what to do. We wandered this way and that trying to find somewhere to eat. We saw an outside cafe and asked the hostess if she knew English. She shook her head and continued what she was doing, and that was that.
We wandered in the opposite direction past a large KFC and equally as large Burger King, which surprised us since we had no idea that those two restaurants were outside of the US. After becoming a little disgruntled and even making the comment that if we were being followed – as everyone in the US told us we would be in Russia (eye roll) – that they would have given up a long time ago, we finally decided to just eat at the Burger King.
We walked through two doors, and waiting at the entrance were three large touchscreen menus for us to place our order. We fumbled through not realizing we could change the language from Russian to English, and chose two Whoppers, two fries, two 7-Ups and two sundaes – chocolate and strawberry for me and chocolate and caramel for Ron. We placed our order and neither of our credit cards would work. We canceled the order and kind of stood there for a minute, looking around, not sure what to do with ourselves, then Ron realized we could probably use Apple Pay. We placed our order again and it worked.
We waited for our number, and while we were in line, we noticed how efficient the workers were, how clean and pressed their uniforms were, and how clean the entire restaurant was including the kitchen. There wasn’t a single fry on the floor. If workers weren’t preparing food, they were sweeping and cleaning, and we were surprised to see them doublechecking each order before calling out the order number.
The meal tasted basically the same as what American Burger Kings offer.
After we ate, Ron waited for the men’s bathroom to come free, and after he was done, I went to the opposite side of the restaurant where the five individual women’s bathrooms were. The bathrooms here are so much better than in the US, because I have found so far that they are usually single, closet-like bathrooms, and the door always goes to the very top and very bottom, making it feel very private and more soundproof.
We left the restaurant soon after, feeling very tired and unsure of what to do with ourselves.
We walked aimlessly, attempting to figure out what the buildings we passed were and trying to translate the names on signs. We decided to go into a mall, which seemed to cater only to women, and walk around. There were several floors, and there did not seem to be much rhyme or reason to the way things were set up. We passed clothing stores, shoe stores, stores selling fur coats, jewelry stores and cosmetic stores.
We looked for a backpack so that I could carry some of the things we packed last minute and take some of the load off Ron. We found a store selling small backpacks, but the prices seemed a little much, so we walked some more and found a store that was having a sale. We chose a dark red and blue backpack with white stars that had compartments on the bottom. After we paid for the bag, the cashier removed the tag and all packaging from the inside before handing it to me. No cashier I’ve come across in the US would have ever thought to do that.
We sat on a bench and transferred half of our belongings to it, making things much easier for Ron. The woman from the original store eyed us as we did so, obviously not happy that we chose a different store over hers.
We wandered about the mall, having no clue what to do otherwise. I never knew which floor I was on or which side of the mall I was on, but of course, Ron always seemed to know. Finally, having seen all there was to see, we exited back onto the only street of Moscow we knew at this point.
We sat on a wall parallel to the mall, feeling exhausted, overwhelmed and clueless as to how to spend our time until boarding the train that night. We were too tired and mentally drained to have any interest in seeing the sights yet, so I suggested a park.
I hopped on Google and found the closest one to the street we had yet to leave. It was within walking distance, so we took off in that direction, glad to have a plan.
We crossed busy streets with the brave people of Moscow who just step out into the road, expecting that cars will stop for them. We passed кафе after кафе, bars and karaoke bars. I looked around trying to translate as much Cyrillic as I could while marveling at the cleanliness of the city.
As we got much closer to our destination, we heard music. Rounding a corner, we saw FIFA volunteers set up in a tent in front of a bustling metro station, which was right in front of the park we were hunting.
It was crowded. Tourists and locals walked through the grass, on cobble paths and sidewalks past ice cream and beverage vendors. Even for a stroll through the park, the local women wore very high heels, never fumbling or missing a step. There were couples, singles, and families with dogs sitting in the grass among the trees, and we followed suit, glad to have a place to finally rest. Ron sat, and I sat against him using him as a chair back.
We looked around, watching and observing, listening to the sounds and conversations around us. A man sat about 30 yards in front of us, serenading the visitors by playing a large instrument whose name I do not know. Deep, beautiful, haunting sounds came from it, and people crowded around him, taking videos on their phones. I eventually laid on my back, head on my new backpack, staring at the sky above me and trying to absorb the fact that I was on a different continent.
Standing up and collecting our backs, Ron asked if a woman behind us was about to pee behind a tree. I glanced in the direction he referenced just in time to see a blonde woman push her pants and panties down, fart extremely loudly and start peeing. Ron asked, “Is she shitting?!” I responded, giggling madly, that she had just farted and was really just peeing, to which he replied, “I don’t know, that sounds like a lot of liquid.”
Laughing incredulously, we walked, steering very clear of the spot of ground that now held her waste, as she returned to the park bench on which her friends were sitting. None of them seemed to find this action to be anywhere out of the ordinary.
We continued on along the sidewalk, coming upon a small pond, riverbanks dotted by the occasional couple. Some had drinks in paper bags, and one young couple shared a large bottle of vodka with no shame. Three couples were paddle-boating lazily across the pond wearing life jackets.
We curved around the pond, surrounded by people speaking all sorts of different languages and walked past a very nice restaurant situated right on the riverbank. The waiters and waitresses wore white shirts and black pants as they carried trays, tending to their customers.
It was about 9:00 PM at this point, seven hours ahead of our normal Eastern time, and we decided to go ahead and wander back to the Kazansky Station where we were scheduled to depart around midnight for Saransk, the host city of the first game we would be attending.
We passed the same bars and restaurants until returning to our starting point. We leaned against a wall, just behind the statue of a man whose name we could not read, and stayed there for quite a while. We watched as families and couples rounded the corner, sprinting toward the entrance. Policemen, some wearing standard uniforms, some wearing blue camouflage over red and white striped shirts walked around seemingly aimlessly. An attractive young woman came and stood to my left about four feet from me, and for the next 30 minutes or so, we watched and laughed as almost every man who walked by checked her out without reservation. She paid no notice and seemed, judging by her frequent smiles and she stared unwaveringly at her phone, to already have a man.
We made our way inside, through and past security, which was much easier without the large bags we had reluctantly left in the cloakroom below our feet. We found “Saransk-FIFA” on the first screen we came to and walked through the rail station, past the cafes, food stands, souvenir shops, pharmacy and restaurants, past the general waiting area with no chair to spar, to a smaller waiting area in the back. It was segregated from the rest of the station and therefore much quieter, with the exception of a group of soccer fans, presumably Australian judging by the color of their jerseys and skin color, who had a laptop set up on top of a suitcase, streaming whatever match was playing at that moment. The occasional cheers would come from their direction, causing the sleepy Russian locals to slowly open their eyes and look around at them.
A single black man sat caddy-corner to us, and a young couple entered the circular enclosed space soon after we did. The girl sported bleach blonde hair, wore a dress, and could hardly seem to let go of the guy she was hanging on.
I pulled out my Kindle and attempted to read while dozing off and on while Ron played Baseball Boy on his phone and glanced at the time with paranoia. After a while, we gathered our things and made our way to the main waiting area in the general part of the station so that we could keep an eye on the screen.
As time came closer, we went through security again before exiting to the platforms. Ron watched the screen and the time as I looked around at the small cafes, magazine shops and people who occupied the space. This consisted, in large part, of brown-skinned people wearing white and red – Peruvians. There were a couple white people here and there sporting Denmark attire, but it was apparent that we would be surrounded by cheers for Peru the next day at the game.
After what felt like an eternity, our train arrived. We paced down the platform, looking for our car number on the window, feeling more and more anxious at not knowing who would be sharing our compartment tonight.
The boarding process was a little clumsy; the FIFA volunteers didn’t seem to know what they were doing quite yet. We made our way down the walkway of the train until we found our compartment number. We stepped inside and placed our bags on the lower bed we had reserved before exclaiming how tiny the space is – much smaller than expected. Two narrow beds are set up on either side of an equally as narrow table. There doesn’t seem to be any air conditioning, and the ceiling is not very high above the top bunk.
I grabbed a makeup remover wipe and climbed up the hideaway ladder to get out of the way of our impending guests. They walked in shortly after – a Peruvian couple around Ron’s age who later introduced themselves as Melissa and Ivan. This was not their first train, and they shared how their last bunkmates wanted to stay up and talk all night. We assured them that we were ready to do nothing but get to sleep as fast as possible.
A Russian man walked through our open compartment door, hand outstretched and reeking of alcohol. He introduced himself first to Melissa, then Ivan who earned a sound of approval at his Russian-sounding name, then to Ron and finally me. I had to pronounce my name several times, more slowly each time, before he grabbed my hand and kissed it, looking me dead in the eye all the while. He thankfully wandered back to his own compartment, and I went to the bathroom to hurriedly wash my face and brush my teeth. As I put on moisturizer using the mirror on the inside of the compartment door, I realized with regret that I didn’t pack my leggings and t-shirt in the train station and am now dreading sleeping fully clothed.