Monday, September 25, 2006

Mouths agape in Moscow

Now I know how it feels to be illiterate. Moscow can do that to you. It's overflowing with signs, directions and instructions, all of them written in Cyrillic with no English translations.

Plus, there are the Soviet-era rules that are drummed into your head right before stepping out of the airport: No photos of police or military men. No conspicuous picture-taking at Red Square (What!?), and certainly no camera tripods. Have your papers with you at all times, any cop can accost you and ask for them.

"But, don't worry," said Deric of the Philippine Embassy, "Moscow is now capitalist, and it's safe."


On our third day in the sprawling city, riding the van that was taking us back to our hotel, the burly, non-English-speaking driver suddenly turned to us and said something in Russian. We looked at each other. He stopped the van, got out and talked to a bystander, who then began pointing his finger in all directions.

We got it. The driver didn't know the way. So for the next 20 minutes, like a bad suspense-thriller movie, we wended our way through narrow, eerily deserted side streets, the street signs mocking us with their unreadable script, the driver himself turning left-right-left in utter confusion. I had visions of KGB men in trench coats suddenly materializing out of corners, seizing us and packing us off to Siberia (a Russian reading this would be smirking and saying, Who does he think he is, Solzhenitsyn?).

Moscow is huuuge, and rich and proud and brash and beautiful. But because it is all of these things, it can also be suplado. Muscovites can strike you as brusque, cold and indifferent. Few speak or understand English. Ask for a glass of water from a waitress and you get a pout--and about half an hour of waiting before your drink arrives.

"Wait till it's winter," said a long-time Pinoy resident. "Then you see them really grumpy all the time."

Thank God we live in sunny climes.

And Manila has the world's worst traffic, right? Or perhaps Bangkok. Wrong. Moscow is it. It's amazing to discover that they have worse gridlock, given that their highways have eight lanes on each side.

The only consolation you have while stuck in your vehicle, at least if you're a first-timer in the city, is the glorious architecture. Oh, the wonder. Nearly every corner in Moscow has buildings that seem outsize, historic, embarrassingly ornate, strikingly designed. Careful, or you'd end up with a stiff neck from all that craning. (I already have a title in mind for my next blog post: Edifice Overload.)

And we're not talking of the churches yet, which are an entirely different league. The first time we glimpsed the candy-colored domes of St. Basil's Cathedral, dead-tired after a 16-hour flight and a traffic-snarled ride to the hotel, we all gasped. GMA 7's Jessica Soho came face to face with this emblem of Russia on the second day of our whirlwind trip to the city. "Hay salamat, nasa Moscow na talaga ako," she said. We were a bit luckier. We had more time to go around, and saw many more heavenly onions.

The subway, too, is unforgettable. Every station is like a subterranean palace, dressed up with paintings, mosaics, sculptures, statues, chandeliers. No two stations are alike. They're also constructed really deep, the deepest at around 85 meters below the Moskva River. So going down the gleaming, fast-moving and sharply-inclined escalator was almost like being in a vintage sci-fi flick. And while the trains aren't new, they are extremely fast. A ride comes along every three minutes or so.

On our way up from a train stop, we saw beggars. Beggars! In Moscow! A mother and child. An angelic-looking boy rocking back and forth while playing an accordion. Another well-scrubbed kid kneeling and beseeching passersby for alms.

Mang Kune, a media colleague, aimed his digicam at the kneeling boy. The boy suddenly erupted in furious Russian, thrusting out his hand and obviously asking for money. Unnerved, Mang Kune shook his head and moved on. The boy gave him the finger.

Cheeky, I thought.

Street level. One more child beggar with a face that could land him a spot in a 'Pinoy Big Brother' tween edition. Honey, of our media group, was about to take a photo when the boy accosted her, palms outstretched. "But I didn't take a photo," Honey protested. The boy let loose a torrent of Russian. To calm him down, I fished out some rubles from my pocket and gave them to him. More Russian words, of which the only ones I could make out were "Nyet, nyet! Evro, evro!"

"Ano daw?," we chorused.

Then it dawned on us. The boy didn't like Russian rubles. He wanted Euro.

For a second I had the urge to give the little devil the finger.

But, okay, for every Russian cold fish, there is somebody like Natalia Zabolotnaya. She's 26 years old, she looks like a cross between a young Uma Thurman and Geena Davis, and she speaks Filipino fluently. As in mapapanganga ka.

Natalia has a master's degree in Filipino Linguistics from Moscow State University (yes, the course, along with other Asian languages, is available to Russian students), and is finishing her thesis for a doctorate. She's been to the Philippines several times, and says she likes Sagada best of all. The last time she came here, she stayed three months. That's how much she loves this country.

Hearing her speak Filipino is a delight. Sometimes she speaks in a more formal, poetic style. Like, when requesting something, she starts her sentence with "Pakiusap po..." When I asked her about her latest visit, she interjected her story with "Nitong mga nagdaang buwan..."

But, make no mistake, she knows her chosen language. She knows "syota" and "askal" and the local slang. Imagine how our jaws dropped when she blurted out one time, complete with mock slap on her forehead: "Anak ka ng tinapay!"

Now I love Russia!

Remember that warning about taking photos of uniformed Russians? I followed it--for a few hours. In Red Square, beside the gargantuan GUM department store, I saw these two Army men in their spiffy green uniforms taking turns posing before their camera. I snapped away--furtively, of course. Then, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, something I had seen only on TV and movies made its appearance: an actual goose-stepping Russian soldier! Couldn't resist, so I fired away.

Let's see if these pics get me to Siberia.

(More photos coming!)


edcel said...

wow, one of your best articles i have read so far...

beektur said...

great experience gibbs. beggars hating to have their pictures taken by tourists. beggars asking for money to have their pictures taken. sounds like quiapo or baguio :) here's more for future trips!

irene said...

filipino linguistics in moscow? omg. panalo ung natalia, hehe. belated happy bday gibbs. =D

Abaniko said...

Galing naman. Pero asan doon ang outrageous? Belated happy birthday.

gibbs cadiz said...

edcel, tsalamat!

beektur, reminded me of the ifugaos in burnham park talaga. :)

irene, thanks for the bday greetings!

abaniko, the outrageous things are not for the blog, haha. :)

Chris Lagman said...

daming fans! kasama na ako :)

Oliver Oliveros said...

Can Nathalia belt like Ulla? Hehehe. Happy birthday, Gibbs! Engaging "kwento" as usual.

=) Oliver

Anonymous said...

pano ba gibbs, wala lang galing mo lang talaga magdescribe ng lugar. I remember when you went to vietnam and china too and you told me what you had experienced there... napanganga na lang ako... Sabi ko writer talaga tong taong to. Napaka observant. Kung katulad mo siguro ako magdescribe, appreciate and observe things magaling din siguro ako na writer...Cge na nga ulit oo I Fan you hehehe
Joey Dictado

benj said...

Yet another foreigner who loves Sagada! Not surprising though - those guys are everywhere up there. They mingle with the locals and even have a drink or two by the fireplace. They're easy to talk to as well.


Anyway, nice shots of Moscow you got there. I was there 10 years ago - my appreciation for places not named disneyland/sixflags was nil. haha

gibbs cadiz said...

pareng JOEY! salamat naman at nakadaan ka. musta ka na dyan sa bangkok? have you adjusted? you should start writing again. sulat ka about thai life from the viewpoint of a pinoy expat, i guest-writer kita dito sa blog. deal? papatalo ka ba kay philip? hehe. :)

hi BENJ, thanks for visiting the site. you were in russia 10 years ago? it must've been even more difficult to move around then! :)

oliver said...

Place looks awesome. :)

Carver said...

WOWWWWWW!!! 'Yun lang ang masasabi ko. WOWWWWW!!!

Ingat lagi! :-)

wendell said...

gibbs, thanks for dropping by my blog. just added you to my site. btw, you'll be surprised that even in places like sydney, canberra and tokyo have beggars in the streets. but they are cared for because there are soup kitchens so they don't really get hungry. take care. regards to our common friends.


p.s. all the while i thought ang babaw ko with my mania for pop culture. great to hear about so many people out there who are just as appreciative. thanks again.

Joseph C. said...

Hi Gibbs, reading your trip to Moscow is a delight, not only the description of the place but also of the different people you encountered there. Your short post is like a crash course that also made me feel I’ve been there myself. Hehe

Mathew Hanger said...

fun and light. this is the real gibbs. =)

gibbs cadiz said...

hey OLIVER, thanks for dropping by. :)

mr. CARLO VERGARA, musta na!? :)

mr. WENDELL CAPILI, an honor to have you here. i have a friend who's a long-time admirer of your poetry. he'd be tickled fuschia to know that you're in my blog, haha. :)

hello, batchmate JOSEPH! i have to go to boracay and your place soonest! :)

RESTY, glad you finally found your way here. :)

lateralus said...

i dont really rememeber it that well. :( we were there for 3 days - we took a flight out of helsinki. We then flew out to Berlin to spend a couple of days more before taking the trains to get around. It wouldve been more enjoyable to do that now.

Anonymous said...

UHmm.... You need not to look far. I met and slept with some Russian Muscovite studying Filipino in UP Diliman. :P

Swipe said...

Hi Gibbs, I just stumble onto your blog while blogsurfing.

Wow! a Russian studying Filipino linguistics in Russia. Makes me wonder why she would want to. I've heard that people study languages in order to appreciate the nuances of literature in those languages. I'm not sure why a russian would be interestedin Filipino literature since most 20th century Filipino literature have been written in English Too bad you didn't touch on that in your conversation with her. It also makes me curious to hear her speak our languange.

gibbs cadiz said...

hi swipe,

as a matter of fact, i did. the reasons are more prosaic in her case. as i understand it, her mom came to the philippines a few times and loved the country so much that she encouraged her daughter to take up tagalog/filipino as a course in college. by the way, the asian linguistics program at moscow state is offered as an incentive to those who express interest in pursuing a career in diplomacy. you can see the logic here. for decades, the USSR was a world superpower, and part of its strategy to stay on top was to mine good intelligence. that's where knowledge of other world languages came in handy. so this academic program was a vestige of the soviet epoch. every new batch of linguistics graduates represented potentially fresh recruits to the russian foreign service. however, natalia herself, and another russian girl who also majored in filipino, have decided not to become diplomats. natalia's thinking of putting up her own business after getting her doctorate -- something travel-related so she could use her knowledge to encourage other russians to check out asia and the philippines. so, no, it wasn't about filipino literature in her case. :)


Swipe said...

hmmm... it's interesting to note that the Russians would deem us worth the trouble to spy upon. :-D

Citizen of the World said...

Stumbled in here by accident. I\'ve always loved Russia although I\'ve never been there. I\'ve pored over books and magazines - anything that reminds me of Russia\'s rich past.

Wonderful post!

Mike said...

hi gibbs! that russian kid who was asking for euro certainly proved that russia is now capitalist. not that it's bad or anything, i'm just saying...

what a great trip! i would love to go there too. i have a lot of russian friends here and they are awesome! i'm really impressed with natalie and the fact that Filipino Linguistics is offered at Moscow State University.

Vladimir said...

>I had visions of KGB men in trench coats suddenly materializing out of corners, seizing us and packing us off to Siberia (a Russian reading this would be smirking and saying, Who does he think he is, Solzhenitzyn?).

Well… a Russian having read this smirked and said: hm, there’s no KGB anymore. If you want to be caught as a spy, you need FSB :) Though they have other troubles than packing off foreign tourists for taking pictures.
And, actually, Siberia is worth going there. Staying not in Russia at the moment, I am sorry to be not able to invite you to Siberia. I think, you can ask Deric about his impressions of Irkutsk and Olkhon island. Anyway, there’s much to see outside Moscow.
As for being suplado… We just don’t smile at every person we see, but we do smile at people we consider our friends (I’m not sure about waitresses, though) :) And you should try coming to someone’s house as a guest. Diet-concerned people, be careful! :)

And not to be suplado myself, I want to say thank you for such a bright description of Moscow.

Anonymous said...

your article reminded me of my brief stay in Moscow. Right now, my teacher in Russian 10 (in UP Diliman) is ms. natalya.
Small world.

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