Are you about to go to Russia for the first time? Do you belong to the generation of English people who think it may be a slightly scary experience because you heard so much negative stuff during the Cold War? Here is a piece written by someone who belongs to the same generation and for whom Russia was at first an exotic experience.
A Londoner writes:
Don't let the cold put you off, my friends assured me. Moscow's great. You'll love it. But, er, you know pack a hat.
Well, you'll need the hat if you go in winter. And make it a good, full-on, non-PC furry one. Minus 20 is jolly parky. Minus 30 is painful. I'm still cringeing at the photos of my scarlet ears on that first visit, when I chose to ignore the hat advice.
Lesson 1: Russian winter is not to be trifled with
My friends were right, though: Moscow IS a great city, and I did love it. It has enough of the recognisable to feel familiar, yet also a good dollop of the mystery and "otherness" that sets Russia apart from western Europe. On the wide prospects and avenues leading through the city you'll find the McDonald's drive-throughs and the huge IKEA warehouses so familiar anywhere else. But step off the main drag into smaller streets and you meet a new world of food shops, mini-marts and curio shops with bizarre names and even more bizarre items for sale. Dried fish (vobla) as a dinner snack, anyone?
Lesson 2: learn Cyrillics
It helps, of course, to know the Cyrillic alphabet. If you've no idea how to read Russian words, you'll have some baffled moments. Navigating the splendid metro system, for instance, with its stunning marbled and chandeliered stations and fast, reliable trains, is child's play if you can read and a nightmare if you can't. You don't need to know any Russian, thank heaven, but the alphabet is an essential. And if you DO know some Russian, don't be disheartened if you get puzzled looks when you try it out. Russians aren't used to hearing foreigners speak their language and even the smallest mispronunciation provokes bafflement. Don't give up.
Lesson 3: Bring a handkerchief
There's much to see in Moscow outside those marvelous metro stations. The Kremlin, obviously, is on every tourist's hit-list and deservedly so. There's something both thrillingly ghoulish and sternly awe-inspiring about walking between rows and rows of dusty coffins containing the earthly remains of every Tsar in Russian history. Little, if anything, about the Kremlin building has changed in centuries, and the place oozes atmosphere. Blinking in the sunshine of a snowy Kremlin courtyard, surrounded by the impedimenta of tsarist orthodoxy and the sombre inscriptions commemorating appalling sacrifices made by men to protect Mother Russia from a thousand invaders over a millennium, it's just about possible even for a soulless Anglo-Saxon to feel some of the immense dignity, courage, loss and sadness of the Russian soul. I defy anyone not to find this indeed, everything in Russia an affecting experience.
Lesson 4: Bring a husband/wife/lover
And there is, of course, much more. Red Square is astounding. For starters, it's vast. Far, far bigger than the TV suggests. Think of a huge soccer stadium, double it, add about another hectare and you're getting the picture. Impressive, to say the least. Plus with the Kremlin wall on one side, the enormous Gum department store on the other, St Basil's at one end and the vast ruby star hanging high over the whole, Red Square has a luminous grandeur that has no equal in any western city I've visited. On a winter night, with ice crystals sparkling in the freshly fallen snow and crunching underfoot, it's a seriously romantic spot.
Lesson 5: Don't bring a vegetarian. Or leave him/her at home when you go out to eat
Under no circumstances, though, should you bring a dietician. Russian food is heavy high octane stuff for a harsh climate. Not many green vegetables to be had, although this is changing as restaurants become more adventurous. Not that there's anything wrong with the food they're offering: quite the contrary. Georgian food, a popular part of the restaurant repertoire, is sensational. A cross between Turkish and Greek cuisine, with a touch of something exotic thrown in, it's a treat for carnivores and foodies of all types.
Lesson 6: Be single
Moscow is the only city I've ever visited where, as a man of six foot, I'm merely of average height among people in the street which is strangely reassuring. Also good news for the male tourist, at least is that every trip out of doors brings the rewarding sight of hordes of knock-your-eye-out pretty girls. I swear Moscow girls are so attractive it's a wonder that Parisian model scouts aren't permanently camped on every street corner. I could go on and on and on about this if my wife weren't vetting this text.
Lesson 7: Don't take a hat. And don't take ANY clothes offering anything remotely approaching thermal insulation
For a change of pace, you could of course go in summer. I was stunned to see Moscow in July after my first trip in darkest winter. For starters, there's the poplar fluff tons and tons of it floating about in the baking, roasting, sizzling heat. From minus 30 to plus 35 is a pretty major journey, I can tell you, and seeing it all through the prism of this weird floating fluff adds a surreal fillip to the Moscow scene. At these times the countryside is also heartbreakingly pretty: Think of the movie Legend, minus the unicorns and Tim Curry, and you get it.
Lesson 8: Charter a supertanker
One disadvantage of a summer visit is the mosquitoes slavering, ravenous, rabid mosquitoes that strip flesh to the bone in seconds (I swear to God I've never been so murderously assaulted in all my life) but then, at least you'll have Moscow to yourself. Most of the summer, Muscovites retreat to their country dachas to grow tomatoes and aubergines and loll about in the fiery heat. This is both a plus and a minus: a minus because there are fewer people-watching opportunities and a plus because there's no Muscovites who are pretty cynical and hard-bitten. But then, so are big-city folk the world over. To their credit, Moscow's inhabitants are also jocular, witty, sardonic, superstitious and generous. Immensely generous. Dare to make friends with anyone and you'll go home with a suitcase double the weight of the one you brought in. It's a serious hazard, in fact, because once a couple of people have given you the treatment you'll be obliged to charter a supertanker to get all your gifts home. You have been warned.
Lesson 9: Go there. Just do it
Any drawbacks? Not that I found. Some of Moscow is rather shabby. Most people live in small apartments. Nothing there that will come as a huge surprise to anyone living in London, Tokyo or Manhattan. You might not put Moscow first on your list if you're looking to do serious designer clothes shopping. Frankly, if shopping's your bag, you're probably not the type to want to visit anyway. Moscow favours the curious, the adventurous, the humorous, the philanthropist and the romantic.