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To Russia with Love

Unlike some of my classmates who visited warmer and sunnier places during the winter break, I spent this past holiday season slipping on sleet and black ice on the streets of Moscow. Despite its cold weather and less-than-friendly image portrayed by our media, the city exudes abundant warmth and charm on anyone who cares to stay there for longer than just a couple of days. In fact, there was enough of it to keep me there for two weeks.

On the outskirts, the city looks like an abandoned soviet-era nuclear site taken over by the major staples of Western consumer culture. A cab ride from the airport exposes a visitor to gloomy and run-down Soviet-era administrative buildings, mixed with gigantic IKEA stores and endless parking lots. That all changes, however, once the taxi hits the center: with several concentric circles originating from the Kremlin, Moscow forms a gigantic spider web of narrow and winding century-old streets, breathtaking wide-open squares and boulevards of the Soviet era, and glass and steel skyscrapers of the more recent business construction projects.

Getting around Moscow presents a major dilemma, particularly for those concerned with social status and image. On one hand, the city boasts one of the most efficient subway systems in the world. During the day, trains run every 40 seconds and delays or interruptions are almost unheard-of. On the other hand, taking the subway has become somewhat of a social taboo among the city’s well-off young professionals who prefer to spend hours in traffic to avoid a quick subway ride “down there with the masses.” The absence of any taxi regulations makes getting anywhere in town a matter of just under five bucks. If you do take a gypsy cab, however, be prepared to inhale the driver’s second-hand smoke and listen to some really bad radio. While local drivers put New York cabbies to shame in terms of their aggressiveness, using seatbelts generally raises eyebrows and signals lack of faith in the driver’s abilities.

At night, the city life continues in countless bars and caf‚s that usually stay open either all night or until the last customer leaves – a nice change from Boston’s strict 2:00 a.m. deadline. Smoking is permitted everywhere, including public spaces, so non-smokers get hefty second-hand doses regardless of seating arrangements in restaurants and definitely in all bars. Face control prevails in trendy lounges and clubs, so getting into the most fashionable venues requires either knowing someone inside or dressing extravagantly. In general, Moscovites take appearances seriously, so dressing well for any social occasion is usually a good idea.

While Moscovites are overly fashion-conscious, shopping in the city is actually quite problematic, unless you dress exclusively in Gucci or Prada (both boutiques are located just steps away from the Kremlin). The main city shopping mall – the GUM – is to be avoided at all costs and should only be viewed as an architectural gem. The place features outlet-quality merchandise at Barney’s prices and attracts mostly clueless tourists visiting the Kremlin. Better shopping can be done at the TSUM – the other central mall right behind the Bolshoi Theatre – or at smaller boutiques scattered around the city. However, I would recommend shopping in New York and only then flying to Moscow – you will have plenty of other opportunities to max out your credit card upon arrival (see below).

Proper socializing in Moscow is more expensive than in any other city I’ve visited. Coffee and desert for two at the trendy Galleria adds up to about $60. Enjoying the city’s panoramic views from the sky bar at the Ararat Hayatt Hotel comes with tiny $25 cocktails, and appetizers at the Pavilion are expensive enough to discourage one from ordering the main course. Despite the cost, going out in Moscow is thoroughly satisfying, due to the amount of care and attention you get as a customer. I first noticed this attention when my friend put her handbag on the floor at Chippolino – another popular late-night destination. Immediately, a waiter appeared out of nowhere with a tiny folding chair and put it under her bag. I had never seen miniature folding chairs for handbags before!

For those more artistically inclined, the city offers plenty of entertainment options, including world-class theater, classical music and opera. While the famous Bolshoi Theatre is closed for renovation, regular performances continue at the Minor Stage, just off Theatre Square. Though this temporary site lacks the magnitude and grandeur of the permanent Bolshoi, the company seems generally unaffected by the renovation, putting on such major productions this season as Prokofiev’s War and Peace and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Opera tickets are generally quite affordable, around $20 for very good seats; however, tickets to other venues, such as The Mayakovski Theatre, tend to get closer to $100. Ticket scalping for most popular performances is not uncommon.

Overall, Moscow is not the most tourist-friendly destination; however, it has charming qualities. One can develop quality relationships with the locals by taking the time and making an effort to cultivate them. That’s why it takes more than just a short visit to fall in love with the place.

January 23, 2006
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