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!)