August 23, 2007
10 Things to Know about Moscow
By Robert Bridge
Okay, without further ado, here is a list of 10 things to know while in the Russian capital.
10. Do not waste your time in Moscow trying to understand the line (queue) system. The very best anthropologists and sociologists have failed to make sense of Russian lines and you probably will too. It is only necessary that you understand the protocol for standing in lines. In the grocery stores, for example, things have become relatively sane, with people lining up single file with their shopping carts just like in the West. But if you must visit a doctor, a lawyer, or god forbid a bureaucrat, you will feel like you have just landed on Mars. When Russians enter a place that demands a line, they ask in a loud voice, "Kto posledniy?" (Who is the last fool here?). Russians hate lines more than anybody, I would guess, so there has evolved an elaborate system of leaving lines to attend to other things, like maybe to go stand in other lines. But before Russians exit the line, they ask the person immediately behind them to save their spot. Do you follow me? So when you enter the visa registration office with a pile of papers to be signed, you may think there are only 30 people ahead of you, only to discover 10 hours later that there is actually triple that amount. This curious phenomenon tends to make people who don't understand what is going on outright violent, because nothing bothers us more than line cutters - especially at the visa office.
9. Zebra Crossings are for Zebras. Do not assume that cars, trucks, scooters, commercial jets or other wheeled modes of transportation will stop, or even slow down, in the zebra pedestrian walks. If you are a zebra, for example, or any other animal that weighs more than the approaching vehicle, the driver may actually apply the brakes. Otherwise, 'zebra walks' are still largely an optional affair for drivers. Note: Moscow just passed strict road regulations for drivers, but still, better to play it safe.
8. Use the underground and aboveground passages. Never, ever attempt to cross a 4-lane road in Moscow without the benefit of a traffic light, or perekhod, that is, an underground or aboveground passageway that takes pedestrians out of harm's way. The Moscow authorities seem to be aware of the massive traffic problems in the city and are constructing these passages everywhere. The latest one straddles 8-lane Leningradsky Prospekt, the eternally clogged artery that goes to Sheremetyevo Airport.
7. Bring your gold with you. An American friend of mine, after spending a few days in Moscow, asked his tour agent why they advised him not to wear his gold watch when strolling the streets of Moscow. When they told him it was not safe here, he replied, "The fruit sellers in the bazaars have more gold in their teeth than I've got in my safe!" I guess that sums it up.
6. The Russians will not eat you; they generally prefer chicken. Moreover, many Russians these days have become sophisticated vegetarians. Russians - despite the lingering stereotypes that took root during the Cold War years - are friendly, intelligent, and may even want to strike up a conversation if they discover that you are an exotic inostranets (foreigner). The chances are extremely high - knock on wood - that you will live to tell fabulous stories about your trip to Moscow. Just use common sense, as anywhere.
5. Before visiting Moscow, brush up on your native novelists. For example, Jack London, Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway. The Russians are (still) voracious readers, and I am ashamed to admit that the first time I heard of O. Henry was in Moscow. At the same time, be prepared to utter some niceties about the famous Russian writers - Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov and Nabokov. And don't even think of visiting Russia unless you are somewhat acquainted with the works of Alexander Pushkin (His statue, which has become the most popular meeting place in the capital, sits on Pushkin Square across from one of the largest McDonald's franchises in the world and the first to appear in Russia. Ask to pay your respects to Pushkin first before requesting a Big Tasty. Big bonus points if you lay a flower on his pedestal).
4. Always remove your shoes when entering a Russian household. Unlike in glorious nation America, there are germs and - despite new dog-walking regulations - even the occasional pile of doggy-doo on the streets. Furthermore, female horse riders get supreme satisfaction by trotting their beasts of burden through the center of the city, creating masterpieces on the sidewalks that even Great Danes envy.
3. Lack of bears on Red Square. It is true; I have seen it with my own eyes: there are no bears on Red Square (!). The most dangerous thing you will experience here are the persistent and occasionally hairy souvenir sellers.
2. Russians are super superstitious. Here is the short-list: Do not present a person with an even amount of flowers - yes, odd; do not present any sort of cutlery or handkerchiefs as gifts; do not shake hands with a person through a doorframe; do not whistle indoors; do not make toasts to babies that are not yet born; do not place an empty bottle on the table top; do not celebrate anniversaries early; do not celebrate your 40th birthday. But go ahead and open your wet umbrella indoors!
1. Do not miss a trip to the Kremlin grounds. Many people make the long trek to Moscow yet never see Cathedral Square, with its 5 fantastic churches, or the Armory Museum. There is only one entrance into the Kremlin, and that is over the old brick bridge that is situated in Alexander's Garden, which is also worth a visit. Enjoy your stay, and don't worry, you'll love it here.