Getting Oriented During the Football Championships
Having lived in Russia for donkey’s years, I find it a bit difficult to imagine how a foreigner must feel visiting Russia for the first time. This will soon be something worth imagining. During the upcoming FIFA football championships from 14 June – 15 July 2018, a million tourists are expected to visit Moscow and the other Russian cities where the games will be held. They’ll need to move about from hotels to football stadiums. After experiencing victory or defeat, food will be needed, followed by something to drink. Many will become disoriented. Here are a few tips about getting around in Russia and avoiding disorientation.
Some of this article is a continuation of my previous one. I will justify repeating myself with yet another apt Russian phrase: ‘repetition is the mother of learning’. By using this phrase, I am allowed to say the same thing again. So are you.
Many who’ve never visited Russia might expect it to be dull and grey. It won’t be in June and July. The sun will be up 18 hours and more per day, especially in St. Petersburg. Russia will be green and sunny. The long days can be startling. I remember going to a restaurant in St. Petersburg in late June on a hot day. It was dimly lit and without windows to the outside world. We finished our meal around 10 pm. When we came outside, the sun was blazing down on us. Later that evening, we got some work done on our suntans. This is what visitors will discover at the football championships, the blazing glory of the summer solstice.
Folks on the street might not seem to smile much in Russia. Most of the streets are marked in Cyrillic and the numbering on the buildings often seems obscure. If I were to land here for the first time, I might think ‘I’m not in Kansas anymore’ and ‘gruff people’. Not to worry, Russians might seem straight faced but inside they have hearts of gold. It just takes a little bit of scratching to get below the surface.
Asking for help
Russians have a soft spot in their hearts for foreigners. A rule of thumb is that if you ever find yourself lost in Russia, ask for help and you will almost always get it although it might not be the kind of help you need. Russians will at times try to lend a hand, even if they don’t know the answer to the question you are asking. It’s polite to give advice, despite the advice being wrong. The trick is to keep asking people the same question over and over. Eventually you will get the correct help.
The first time I found out about this strategy was while I was living in Italy. I met a Russian who was emigrating to Brooklyn via Rome. We decided to take the bus to Castel Gondolfo, a town in the hills outside Rome. The bus station was a bit confusing but eventually we found a bus that showed Castel Gondolfo on the front of it. Before getting on the bus, my Russian friend asked several people whether our bus would in fact go to Castel Gondolfo. Our Italian wasn’t very good and the people we asked clearly thought that we had lost our marbles. Once we had boarded the bus, he asked several more people if we were on the right one, including the driver. My Russian friend kept looking out the window for Castel Gondolfo, thinking we would miss it, even though it was the last stop.
At the time, I thought my Russian friend was off of his rocker. These days I consider him to be a wise person and a true Russian. Any new visitor to Russia should ask for help from as many people as possible. Pick out someone interesting. You might even make a new friend or two along the way.
Google Maps makes things easier nowadays. There is another map app that is even better. It’s named YandexMaps. Download it. Also, download an app named Yandex Taxi. This app works like Uber with payments made in cash. There is no need to provide your credit or debit card to Yandex Taxi.
Most new visitors today are coming to Russia in a time when taking a taxi is a piece of cake. This is a massive improvement over the old days when taxis were flagged down by hand. Up until about four years ago, most taxis in Russia were dilapidated gypsy cabs. The drivers were scruffy and they smoked; it was part of their job description. Before taking a cab, the fare was negotiated. These negotiations were something like verbal hand to hand combat. Overpaying was a cause of deep shame. Once in the cab, there usually would be some kind of a conversation, often about politics, with the drivers. Sometimes the fare negotiations would flare up again. That’s all changed, mostly for the better. The taxis hailed using Yandex Taxi are new and clean, the passenger can rate the driver on the app, keeping him on his toes, the map apps take away the need to argue about the best route to use in the dense thicket of Russian traffic and the cabs are smoke free. The rates for these taxis are very reasonable. The only drawback is the lack of conversation. Before, taking a taxi involved an interesting discussion. These days the ride mostly takes place in silence.
If you don’t hail a taxi using an app such as YandexTaxi, you will have to negotiate the rate verbally with a physical person as opposed to having the price set by an app. Avoid doing this unless you don’t mind overpaying. YandexTaxi works at the airport, by the way, and train stations. You’ll get an SMS showing the name and license plate number of your taxi. If you don’t understand the SMS, ask someone (other than another taxi driver) to help. Once you find your taxi cab, you will feel like a traveler and not a mere tourist.
The metro in Russia is a fantastic thing. Take pictures of the architecture and put them on social media to confound anyone who tries to use your data for nefarious purposes. If you don’t know what train to catch, take your time. Another one will come speeding into the station in a matter of minutes. Ask several people which train to take. It will be very easy to get on the wrong train and find yourself in the outskirts of the city, thoroughly disoriented.
Before going somewhere in Moscow, put the address in Russian on your smart phone. That way, once you get close to the neighborhood, restaurant or bar you’ve decided to visit, you will know what to ask for. Like office buildings, many restaurants and bars are cleverly hidden in this part of the world. Part of the challenge is finding them.
Some Russian businesses have turned vagueness into a business model. There are several bars in the city that are unnamed. The only way to go to one is to know, by word of mouth, where it is before you get there and be invited in advance. I have been to one such bar, near a train station in Moscow that I cannot disclose. The person who invited me knows every decent bar in the city (he’s my best friend). He gave my name and phone number to the bar before I showed up. It is located in a well-designed basement. I had to wander around to find the entrance. It was next to a garbage bin in a dingy courtyard of an old building with a substantial quantity of peeling plaster. There were pigeons cooing above us and several people were smoking foul smelling cigarettes in the vicinity. They told me which door was the secret one. It was red. The bar had a bartender with a very large beard who had won awards and had been written about. He made several concoctions of his own invention which were expensive and not especially good. The food was fine, so was the assortment of different kinds of whiskey. The best part was the décor, made to look like an opium den, and the fact that it was a secret place. For some reason, most of the people in the bar were foreigners. Several Russians working at the bar spoke English perfectly, without any accent at all. If the waiter likes you, he will take your picture, allowing you to come back. Ours took mine and I will need to show my own face as identification if I ever return.
Language, lifestyle and night owls
English is not as widely spoken in Russia as in many other parts of the world but more and more people are learning it. However, many Russians know a few words, or are fluent, in some kind of a foreign language or another. Don’t be confused if you ask a question in one language and get an answer in another one. For some reason, this happens in Russia. I sometimes get an answer in German or another language when I ask a question in Russian. Someone hears my accent, assumes I’m a foreigner and answers in the language they know. The same thing happens occasionally when I ask questions in English. I don’t have an explanation for why this takes place. It just does.
Russians are night owls. Many people eat dinner late. After that, the logical thing to do is keep going. The bars and clubs start filling up around midnight. Afterwards it’s not uncommon to stay out all night. I’d plan on not getting much sleep during the football championships.
Many parts of Moscow have been beautifully renovated and turned into walking streets without traffic. Wayward vehicles parked at random on the sidewalks are a thing of the past. I suggest visiting these areas, mostly located in the historical parts of the city. They are nicely done. The sun will be up late and people will be walking around, enjoying the long summer days and many bars, coffee shops and “people watching” along the way. This list from Tripadvisor is a good one. I recommend visiting any or all of these ten newly refurbished areas of the city: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attractions-g298484-Activities-c47-t19-Moscow_Central_Russia.html
Russians are spontaneous. To a Russian, doing something on the spur of the moment is an important way to enjoy life. If a visitor to Russia finds someone who wants to do something extraordinary, right then and there, don’t be surprised. Go with the flow. If you can keep up with the Russians, more power to you. Don’t try. On their own turf, many Russians are indefatigable.
Many parts of the world are increasingly becoming similar to one another. Not Russia, a place that has kept its unique, Eastern European feel. Russia by and large doesn’t look or feel like other countries. The people are unique as well. They are the biggest attraction for a whole list of reasons. A surprising number of folks, like me, come back for more. I hope as many visitors as possible come to the football championships and find out why.