Saturday, March 29, 2014

Moscow (Part XV: The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center)


At the Jewish Museum, I went to the ticket counter and proudly held out 400 rubles.

The museum is located in what clearly used to be a sprawling warehouse, and it has a cool “New York loft apartment” feel to it, with exposed brick walls and all the displays under one vast, airy  roof. It is quite large, with lots to see and read; I spent two hour there and by far did not see everything (in particular, I did not see their youth center, nor the “Center for Tolerance” section of the facility).  But what I saw was really, really interesting and well-done.

Exterior of Moscow's Jewish Museum. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, provided by the museum itself.

First, visitors go up a ramp into an enclosed theater with large, comfortable seats in concentric circles, with large screens all around on the circular walls. There, the museum shows a film that summarizes the events of the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible), establishing for all visitors, Jews and non-Jews, that this museum is about a people with a long history and a rich heritage, a people that has many stories about itself and that has challenges maintaining their traditions and heritage when they are scattered all over the world. I appreciated that they started with the “positive,” and that they didn’t jump right into something like the Holocaust.  In any case, the seats moved around to make it “experiential,” and if you ever go there, be prepared to get wet during the section about Noah’s Ark.

Experiential theater-in-the-round about the Hebrew Bible. This and all other photos taken from the Museum's website.
One then goes out into the exhibits about Jewish life in Russia over the last several hundred years, which go more or less chronologically, though I think at one point I went the wrong way and went through  the 1800’s backward. There is also a section on the different Jewish holidays, which I think is a serviceable introduction  for people who don’t know much about them, and a section on Jewish traditions in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, with photos of families lighting Shabbat candles and such.

Wherever possible, the curators clearly did their best to make the exhibits engaging and to use as many senses as possible; for example, in the section on Jewish synagogues and prayer, they have a soundtrack playing of a man chanting Kol Nidrei, which gave me chills because, of course, it’s the same tune they use in every synagogue I’ve ever been in for Yom Kippur. These are MY people!  Many of the different eras of Russian-Jewish history were addressed through documentaries, showing real film clips from the times. In a section about political turmoil in the early 20th century, there is a “coffee shop” where you sit at tables with various statues (Jewish people) and you can read the newspapers and pamphlets that are on the table - quite clever. Most, though not exactly all, the exhibits came with English translations.

Interactive maps of Jewish migration from the destruction of the Second Temple until today.
Then as now, urban Jews sat in coffee shops and talked about local politics.

The section about life in the Shtetl was very good, although I did accidentally jab my toe into the platform holding up some peddler’s wares, and to this day I have a bruise under the nail of my second toe - an injury I sure didn’t need! But in any case, there were two things I learned about, that I hadn’t realized I was confused about. The museum showed me I’d been confused AND cleared up the confusion at the same time.

First, about Shtetl life. I’d always gotten two kinds of stories about it, passed down  from my grandmother, who lived in one, and through other cultural exposures such as playing in "Fiddler on the Roof" or visiting Yad Vashem. I realized now that I’d never really understood how it was that the Shtetl was both a sort of Golden Age of Jewish life in Eastern Europe and Russia, and also a place where Jews suffered from anti-Semitism and were poor and had difficult lives.

Here I learned that for hundreds of years, Jews lived in Shtetls and, for the most part, did have relatively good lives (compared to the non-Jews around them) because they were some of the only literate people in society, and because they were relatively autonomous. They could practice Judaism as they pleased. Until they couldn’t. Starting in the late 1800’s, in particular when Russia annexed Poland, anti-Semitism became more rampant, the Shtetls became less autonomous, and, for all sorts of economic and cultural reasons, more young Jews started moving into cities, where they had more opportunities but were no longer protected by the “togetherness” of the Shtetl - they were more exposed. And then, of course, following the Revolution in 1917, it was forbidden for them to practice Judaism at all (just as it was forbidden for anyone to practice any religion, including Christianity.)

I learned about Shtetl history and lifestyles, and also jammed my toe quite thoroughly into the low platform under this barrel.
Another enlightening thing I learned addressed a question that had been in my mind ever since I started interviewing Russian-speaking immigrants to Israel, for my job. I go once a month to different Jewish Agency Absorption Centers, talking with these new immigrants about why they moved to Israel and what their plans are. One particular donor for whom I collect these stories likes to hear that Aliyah is inspired by anti-Semitism, and/or that the immigrants are grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. So I always ask about the Holocaust connection, even though in the back of my mind I wondered what connection there would be, for Jews in countries that hadn‘t been occupied by Germany. And every time, especially when I spoke with Ukrainians, they didn’t tell me about family members who had been in concentration camps, they told me about family members who had either migrated because of World War II (often they migrated several times, to different areas of the Former Soviet Union), or who had fought in the military. Obviously I had a hole in my historical knowledge, and two conflicting questions niggled at me, unarticulated: why were Jews in the Soviet Union affected much at all? And at the same time, how could it be that ANY Jews in this region of the world DIDN’T have relatives in concentration camps? (Now, I’m like “duh,” but again, the questions were nebulous, unarticulated -- I didn’t know that I didn’t know.)

At the Jewish Museum in Moscow there is a very moving section about the Jewish community’s role and sacrifices during World War II: how many Jews fought for Russia in their army, how many hundreds of thousands of Jewish soldiers were killed, how the Jews in the Russian army fought doubly hard because they were fighting not only for Russia, but also because they had an inkling of what would happen to them if Germany won the war. I had never truly considered World War II from the Russian viewpoint before, let alone the even more specific Russian-Jewish one. Now I understood why, when I asked about the Holocaust at Israeli Absorption Centers, the Russian translators used the word “Catastroph” to refer to the war.

FYI, the gift shop at the Museum has some nice knick-knacks, but all the books were in Russian. No English. In this case I think that’s fair, since the museum really is marketed more, I think, toward non-Jewish Russians than to international tourists, though I do highly recommend it to visitors. It‘s a truly excellent museum. Next to the gift shop is a kosher cafĂ© that looked like a nice quiet place to sit, with all that exposed brick and all.
The Jewish Museum store has little to offer English-speakers, but is otherwise very respectable, with many books in Russian about Jewish culture and history.

On my way out of the museum two interesting things happened.

First, I saw what clearly was a Chabbad rabbi leading a group of teenagers through the museum. Finally - someone who speaks Hebrew!  The teens looked like it was a secret thrill to have an American stranger talking to their rabbi in Hebrew, and it really is very cool when you think about it. Anyway, he confirmed for me that yes, the synagogue where there would be communal Shabbat meals is quite nearby, and did I know that in addition to the Israeli table, there would be, this week, a Shabbat table set aside where the language would be English? I said I’d certainly keep an eye open for it! He also showed me that the kosher grocery store, Pardes, was just a block away.

Second, I checked my email (thanks, free museum wi-fi!), and found that the friends taking care of my cat were having a difficult time. The cage I’d bought for him turned out to be very easy for him to escape. He’d almost jumped out the open window of their apartment. They had made a makeshift cover for the pen, but still, he had found a way to escape from underneath. The tin of litter that the vet had recommended using was not adequate and they were planning to go to my apartment to get the litter box. Meanwhile the cage was full of litter. And Wylie seemed unhappy, “brooding,” and they didn’t feel they could devote the time he needed to interaction and affection. He wasn’t eating and they were basically force-feeding him wet food and his painkiller. Perhaps he’d be better off at a shelter?

I promised I’d try to find an alternative solution for him, because if they were specifically asking about putting him in a shelter, it sounded like they were very overwhelmed by the intensive care he needed, and I’m not the sort of person to just leave my problems dumped on good folks who are overwhelmed by them. I told them that it’s OK if Wylie is brooding as long as he’s safe, and I know they are doing their best and I have confidence that no one could be doing better than they were, but I’d try to find a new place for him. I posted on Facebook that I’m looking for solutions for my cat, and then walked home. Shabbat was starting soon, and I still didn’t have my credit card code, and now my toe hurt and I needed to find a new place for my cat to rehabilitate. But at least I’d finally seen a Moscow attraction, and it had been one with personal meaning.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Moscow (Part XIV - "How was the weather?")


Everyone warned me that the weather in Moscow would be terrible. That’s why the plane ticket is so cheap, everyone pointed out; who else is crazy enough to go to Russia at the end of February? “We hope you have a good coat,” they said.

Well, I do have a good wool jacket, in fact, and I wore many, many layers, and gloves, and earmuffs. And between the coat and all the layers and the gloves and the earmuffs, I was perfectly comfortable.

Most of my trip, the temperature hovered just at zero degrees Celsius, or one degree below, during the day. That’s pretty cold . . . but it was sunny, and there was no wind. The absence of wind makes a huge difference.

Given that I was getting over a fever, I actually found the crisp, cold, sunny air refreshing. The weather was absolutely not an issue. (The last day, it snowed a bit, but not enough to get in my way.)

The fact that my boots were extraordinarily uncomfortable for long-term wear was a much bigger problem than the weather.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Moscow (Part XIII - Supermarket)

Click here for Parts I, IIIIIIVVVIVII,VIIIIXXXI, and XII.

I woke up at 11 am, feeling incrementally better than the night before.  At least I was headed in the right direction, albeit slowly.

On my way out of the hotel, I purchased access to the internet for the day, emailed Jerusalem to exert some more not-so-subtle pressure on my friends to go to my apartment and get my PIN code for me, and then headed for the supermarket I’d found next to the money-exchange place the day before.

My first order of business, now that I had some cash, was to get toothpaste. All this time – since I’d arrived a day and a half before – I’d been brushing with water to protect my teeth, and gum to protect my breath. I would have traded my kingdom for some Colgate.

While looking for toiletries, I took the opportunity to examine grocery prices here in Moscow. The store was long and narrow, so I had to walk the entire length of it before I found the dental items at the other end. I picked up a banana and some milk, and looked around at the prices on produce, meat, packaged foods, and dairy products.

Many people had told me that Moscow is an expensive city, but I found the prices here to be quite reasonable.  The prices on the food were certainly no higher than in Israel, and in most cases a bit lower.

Of course, everyone knows that food prices in Israel are ridiculous.

Furthermore, I later found out from someone I met at a Shabbat meal that an educated person in Moscow can expect to make only about $1,000 per month, about half of what an educated person in Jerusalem makes. So if the prices on food were only a LITTLE lower than in Israel, I could see why so many people who had an opportunity to move to Israel were taking it. (The admissions prices to museums, by the way, are also reasonable, all things considered, generally the equivalent of about 35 NIS / $10 or so.)

By the way, it appears that Russians, like many Europeans (I think?) are not in the habit of using floss. There were about four different kinds of toothpicks, and many brands of toothpaste and mouthwash, but no dental floss. Also, by the way, trying to mime dental floss to store employees  feels rather ridiculous.

When I went to pay, the cashier swiped the toothpaste and the milk, but not the banana. She didn’t speak English but motioned that there was something missing from the banana. I figured out that here, you are supposed to weigh the produce in the produce section, get a sticker with the price, and then bring it to the cashier – they don’t weigh it at the cash register. I felt bummed that I didn't even know how to buy a banana in this place, but did recognize that not having a banana was a much higher-order problem than the ones I'd had the day before.

You live and you learn. Weigh produce first. Know your PIN code. Pack your own dental floss. OK.

Now that the shopping was done, I had time to see a tourist attraction. I considered going to the Matrushka Doll Museum, but with Shabbat coming, and my still feeling woozy, I figured it would be smarter to stay closer to the hotel. The Matrushka dolls would have to wait until Sunday or Monday.

Next stop, just a few blocks away: The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Moscow (Part XII - Trigger Warning)

   Click here for Parts I, IIIIIIVVVIVII,VIIIIXX and XI .

When I bought my ticket for the Bolshoi, I chose the performance on the basis that it was the only night during my trip that they were doing a ballet (rather than opera) and it wasn't Shabbat. It didn't much matter what ballet they were doing, since there was no other night I could see any dance there. I could tell it would be something modern, but didn't really pay much attention to what it would be. Whatever it would be, it would be the Bolshoi Ballet! Amazing!

When I got there and settled in my balcony seat, an incredibly graceful and strong man dressed in a suit was dancing on and around a sofa, full of angst.

He was extremely talented. When he was finished, about four other dancers came on, did a dance full of angst, and left, to be replaced by a couple playing out domestic angst in a home (it ended with the woman 
taking a baby out of the smoking oven, handing it to the guy, and leaving).

Here are photos from the ballet, taken by Damir Yusupov, who I think is an official photographer for the Bolshoi (I found the pictures through Google Images):

Although ideally I would have been treated to classical ballet, full of frilly tutus and soaring music, I could appreciate the modern dance. I cannot overstate how talented the dancers were, and if the music and choreography weren't my taste, and if I'd have preferred Swan Lake or the Nutcracker, well, I could still respect what the Bolshoi had chosen to do tonight. Besides, what is a trip to Russia without a ballet full of angst? I felt the whole thing was appropriate and interesting and Russian, through my aching feet, slowly-receding nausea, and slowly decreasing fever. 

When intermission began, I went downstairs and claimed my rightful seat. Tenth row, center aisle at last! Thank God. I also asked an usher for an English program. (None of the ushers spoke a word of English, natch.) It turned out that what I had just seen was called Kvartira, and it had been a one-act ballet. After intermission, I'd be seeing a different 45-minute one-act ballet, Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.

Some of you reading this know what's coming, but I did not. I did not know that when The Rite of Spring debuted in 1913, it literally almost caused a riot, because the music is so discordant and the choreography was so disturbing. Oh no, my immediate thought was "The Rite of Spring – that sounds pretty!" (Looking back, my ignorance is embarrassing but it sure makes for a better story on my blog.)

This performance had new choreography; the show had debuted at the Bolshoi just nine performances ago. The "plot" of the dance revolves around a group of dancers, equally divided between men and women, who live in an incredibly ugly futuristic dystopia; the set immediately brought to mind the film "9." 

The dancers have no water. There is a huge faucet way up in the sky, and the women often stand under it, praying for relief, but it never provides even a drop. Meanwhile, the men force the women to conform the rules of this strange world – for example, each dancer creates a platform based on her height, so that in no time they all become the same height. A creepy drawing of a leader (Lenin?) appears, and the women rip it apart in a display of protest! 

And then, in a scene that should have come with a trigger warning, each of the men rapes one of the women. Then the women hang themselves. Then a creepy medical table is lowered down from the sky, and each woman rolls off of it into a long sandbox, and rolls around in the dust, trailing her hair in it and then whipping her hair back, so the dust is everywhere. The world is dust! The world is full of nothing, it has no meaning at all! Then they all get water and are happy. The end.

That's right, children. After everything I'd been through to get to the ballet, it turned out to be a super-depressing commentary on the Soviet regime and on patriarchy, with scenes of rape and mass hanging. I'm pretty sure my interpretation is correct because on the way out, I found the group of tourists who had arrived late with me, and we'd all interpreted it the same way. Turns out they were Americans who had just been in Sochi for the Olympics, and stopped to see Moscow before going home. 

I learned two things on the way out. First, the beautiful lobby area is full of benches because – and this makes complete sense – putting one's coat back on after the ballet is part of the procedure of leaving, when you live in a place as cold as Moscow. The Bolshoi architects were kind enough to provide ample coat-check space and ample space for putting on boots, hats, and scarves.

Second, they are way behind on the consumerism thing in Moscow. The American group were interested in buying Bolshoi souvenirs – they specifically wanted t-shirts, but would have been happy with anything that cost $50 or less – but the only items available were a few different books (only one in English, and all pricey) you could buy on the way out from a woman at a little table. In New York or London, the entire area between the theater and the Metro station would have been riddled with little souvenir shops with licenses to sell Bolshoi items. Here? Nothing. (Another difference: There were people dressed in formal eveningwear at the Bolshoi. In New York and London theaters, people dress nicely, but you don't see anyone in a floor-length gown.)

Anyway, I hobbled back to the Metro and got off at the station nearest to my hotel. I had a bit of confusion about how exactly to get back, and ended up taking a wrong turn for a short while a couple of times (see my path, in the red line, below), which would not have been a big deal except that my feet felt like they were burning in lava, and I was tired and sick and was just barely managing to see the amusing irony in the fact that after all this, the ballet had been one of the most depressing productions I'd ever seen. I was also not happy to be walking alone around Moscow late at night, because there weren't enough people on the street for my taste. It felt a bit alarming.

When I got back to my room, I fell into a deep sleep, without setting my alarm. I needed money and I needed to get this trip back on track, but most of all I needed to get healthy again.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Moscow (Part XI - The Way to the Bolshoi)

Click here for Parts I, IIIIIIVVVIVII,VIIIIX and X.

I was about 15 minutes late meeting Rusina, so when at first I couldn't find her, I feared that she'd given up and left. But she was there, with a hug and a smile and an expression of sympathy. She not only loaned me some money, she also came down into the metro station with me to buy me a 20-ride ticket, and showed me on the subway map how to get to the Bolshoi.

The Moscow Subway System

The great thing about having lived in New York for so many years is that if you have mastered the New York City subway, any other city's system is pretty much a snap. It was easy to work out on the map which lines I should take and where to change trains, and it was easy to match the signs in the stations and on the platforms to the information I'd gleaned from the map.

I should add here that Moscow's reputation for having excellent subway service is well-deserved. The stations are clean, nicely decorated, and well-marked, and the trains came by approximately every three minutes. (Some of the stations are so beautifully decorated that they were listed in "Moscow Top 10" as tourist attractions in themselves. Alas, since my logistical troubles and illness forced me to shorten my itinerary, I wasn't able to see any of them. I'd been hoping to.)

It also offered an incredibly smooth ride; I was annoyed at first to find there weren't poles in the subway cars for short people to hang onto, and then found that the level of "jerking" was small enough that with just a little concentration I could avoid losing my balance, even when the train was entering or leaving a station.

Still, despite my subway savvy, the routes and stations were unfamiliar to me, and so I did a lot of double-checking of signs and maps to make sure I was always going in the right direction. This added time to the trip.

Adding insult to injury, the balls of my feet were starting to hurt like hell. For two days I'd been wearing the same pair of boots (I hadn't packed any other footwear, because why should I? It would be too cold in Moscow to wear flats), and they were getting incredibly uncomfortable.  So now, each step was an effort because I had no energy AND because my feet felt like they were burning off from the inside. I was therefore disappointed to find that each subway platform had only one map to look at, usually at the other end of the platform from wherever I was! Torture.

Anyway, when I got to the Teatralnaya station, it was 6:53. The ballet started at 7. With any luck I'd make it just on time!

I emerged from the subway system into the night air, and saw this (I lifted this photo through Google Images from  a blog called Internet Dating UK but it's exactly what I saw), and knew without needing to be told that this was the famous Bolshoi, just steps away!


For a minute I just stared at it, but time was a-wasting. I approached the entrance at the columns, but saw people in front of me being turned by a guard to a place around the corner. I knew there was only one show at the Bolshoi that night, in the "New Hall," so I motioned to the guard "Here? There?" and he motioned that I should go around to the left side of the building and then straight.

The current Bolshoi Theater building was built in 1821. A little more than a decade ago, it was closed for extensive renovations. In order to be able to continue performances while the building was being fixed up, the Bolshoi  built the "New Stage." I'd seen in pictures beforehand, and knew that even though I wouldn't be in the historic auditorium, I was in for a treat. The Bolshoi had invested a tremendous amount into making the New Hall nearly grand as the old, and the pictures looked just beautiful.

The interior of the Bolshoi's New Stage (photo found through Google Images)

I went around what was clearly the historic, "old" building, looking for an indication of where the "new" hall was. I walked all the way down the length of the Bolshoi and didn't see anything to indicate where I should go. So I walked around the back. Nothing. And around the other side. No entrance.

Now I was back at the columns where the guard had directed me away. I had just wasted so very many precious steps on my aching feet to walk completely around the Bolshoi building.

Exasperated, and noting that it was now after 7, I went through the main entrance and found a human being at a sales booth. I showed her the confirmation for my ticket to the night's performance, and she issued me a ticket with a beautiful design on one side and the Bolshoi logo. There it was, written plainly in black and white: Row 10, Seat 13. My perfect seat in the center aisle!

She pointed me back outside and insisted I should go out the way I'd been before, around to the left. Stymied, I went out again, and this time found a group of about eight other people who all were clearly looking for the same thing I was. Finally, we realized that the grand building on a platform to our left must be New Hall. You didn't REALLY think it would say "Bolshoi" on the building anywhere, even in Cyrillic, did you?

We all went in, checked our coats, and then had more trouble figuring out where to go from there. Up some stairs . . . then up more stairs . . . where an usher (who spoke hardly an English, natch) told the group they have to go up yet ANOTHER flight of stairs. I approached the usher and presented my ticket, and she said "Come this way." She led me silently into the theater . . . onto the first balcony . . . where she unfolded a seat connected to a pillar, and pointed that I should sit there.

A: Where I was supposed to sit. B: Where I was now sitting.

It was 7:10 and I'd lost my beautiful seat, until intermission. I felt like crap, and the anxiety of the past few hours still hung on me like a cobweb. But I was at the Bolshoi, and a very graceful dancer was moving onstage, and there was music playing. I reminded myself that everything I was experiencing was very much a First World Problem. Poor me, I have a bad seat at the Bolshoi Ballet, boo hoo, you know?

Deep breaths, Sarah. Calm down, focus on the present, and enjoy the Bolshoi.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Moscow (Part X - Novoslobodskaya)

Click here for Parts I, IIIIIIVVVIVII,VIII and IX.

Rusina had said that it was a 15-minute walk from my hotel to the Novoslobodskaya Metro station, where I was to meet her, but I didn't want to take any chances so I went down to the lobby at about 5:30 to ask how to get there.

The first thing the receptionist (the same one who had given me free internet a bit earlier) said was "you see train on street?" Yes. I had noticed a network of electrical cables strung over the major streets nearby  -- it did nothing to improve the aesthetics of the city, but did vaguely remind me of the "T" in Boston and therefore felt sort of homey to me --  and periodic tiny "trains" that ran along them, with little antennae-like rods connecting the "trains" to the cables. Hilariously, to make sure I understood what she was talking about, the receptionist made a little V sign over her head, to indicate the antennae. Anyway, yes, I knew about the train.

"Take train to Novoslobodskaya," she said. I replied "I can't. I have to walk. I have no money for the train." She literally rolled her eyes and I realized how absolutely idiotic I sounded, being a tourist with absolutely no money.

The receptionist impatiently said "follow train," so I did. But when I saw the train veer left at a point that I thought perhaps I should be veering right if I was on foot, I tried asking more people for directions (I'd been correct. Also, the station was VERY difficult to find and I never would have done so on my own. Also, the big M signs indicating a metro station are not as obvious in
Moscow as they are in other cities I've visited . . . at least, not if you don't know what you are looking for). Every few blocks I stopped Russian passers-by and said "Metro Novoslobodskaya?" And I learned four things.

First, everyone who had assured me that in central Moscow I'd find plenty of cosmopolitan people who spoke English did not know what they are talking about. Not one single person spoke English.

Second, no one ignored me. Everyone did what they could to point me in the right direction. Some of them did so brusquely, but there were people who were friendly in the sense of stopping and thinking about the best direction to send me, and trying their darndest to explain in English. It was sweet of them to try. Most switched to Russian and I just gave them a blank stare and shrugged, because trying to understand was pointless.

Third, if you are reading this and you have never learned Russian, I guarantee that however you are pronouncing "Novoslobodskaya"in your head is wrong. Every single person, when asked "Metro Novoslobodskaya?" first responded with a quizzical look and then said something like "Noviblublublublublu?" Maybe it was NoVOslobskei, or Novoblintzes, or Novajabotinsky. But however I was saying it, was not right.

Fourth, when you are sick AND you don't know where you are going, a 15-minute walk turns into a 40-minute walk.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Moscow (Part IX - PINs and Needles)

Click here for Parts I, IIIIIIVVVIVII and VIII.

I managed to communicate to the hotel receptionist that I'm having a problem accessing money and I needed to reach friends in Israel. She kindly gave me a code for the hotel's wi-fi and said I could pay her back later (the hotel charges 100 rubles per day for wi-fi access, the equivalent of 10 NIS or $3).

I emailed my roommate and then sat on pins and needles waiting for her to write back. She was out of town . . . wouldn't be back until at least tomorrow, if then.

I emailed the Buxners. Since they were caring for Wylie, they had the key to my apartment. They could get into my apartment and find the piece of paper with the code to my credit card. Since the card was new, I knew exactly where that paper was, thank goodness.

While I waited for them to respond, I emailed Rusina and asked her to call me. On the phone, she said that indeed I have a problem, since one cannot pay for Metro cards with a credit card, only cash, so I wouldn't be able to get far until I was able to access an ATM. For example, the Matrushka Doll Museum was out of the question until I was able to get a Metro card (or get cash to pay for a taxi – either way I needed cash).

She suggested that while I wait for the Buxners to respond, I go to the JewishMuseum and Tolerance Center. It was just a few blocks from me and I could pay for my ticket with my credit card. Its proximity also meant that I wouldn't be pushing myself too hard, physically.

Relieved to be making productive use of my time at last, I walked to the Museum. Actually, I plodded. Every step was an effort. At first I went the wrong way and though I quickly realized the error and doubled back, I was upset to have wasted the energy, even if it was only a block's worth of steps.

I got to the Jewish Museum. It's located in what clearly used to be a large warehouse, and the entrance was around the other side. I walked the long path around the museum, and discovered that on the other side of the path was . . . a Jewish school. I knew it was a Jewish school because there were about 70 kids playing outside for recess, and all the boys were wearing kippot and tzitzit, and all the girls were wearing skirts. Based on what I knew of the Day School scene in Moscow (thanks to my job), I knew this must be the chareidi school, one of a few different Day Schools in town.

I was tired, but more importantly I was at last seeing my miracle, so I sat on a bench on the path and watched the children playing. A Jewish day school in Russia! They were learning Judaism at school, openly, without having to worry about the KGB arresting their teachers. Who would have thought, when I was growing up, that I'd live to see this? These children had been born after the fall of the Soviet Union. They had no idea how lucky they were, or how special their school is, but I knew. I wished I could hold onto what I was seeing and save it to show my friends and family.

Finally I continued on, step by torturous step, to the Jewish Museum entrance. I went to the ticket counter. The person there spoke English! He said a ticket is 400 rubles (40 NIS/ $12). I handed him my credit card. He swiped it.  

And then he turned a little machine to me and asked me to enter my PIN code.

So I took my card back and walked away.

It turns out that in Russia, as in many other countries (but not in any places I've ever lived), you cannot complete any credit card transactions at all without the PIN code. In the USA and Israel, you just hand over your credit card, they swipe it, you sign the receipt, and you are done. In Russia, they require your PIN (later, a Russian colleague in Israel told me that she was appalled when she discovered how easily someone in Israel could, in theory, fraudulently use her credit card). Intellectually I think the Russian way makes much more sense. But right now, their intelligent credit card security culture meant that I could do nothing, nothing at all, until I heard back from the Buxners and they went to my house to find my code.

I emailed them again. I'm sure I sounded like a mad woman, and in fact, they later confirmed that they thought I was a little nuts, because who goes abroad without money? They didn't yet know all the details of how I'd gotten to this point. But in any case, they were not at home. They were out celebrating their first wedding anniversary and wouldn't be home until late. They'd try to get to my house tomorrow . . .

I called Rusina because I didn't know what else to do. I was so embarrassed; she's not a friend, but a work colleague (though friendly and helpful), and here I was, in the very unprofessional condition of being sick and broke.

She said she'll think, and get back to me. A little while later I got an email from her. I was to meet her at a Metro station about a 15 minute walk from the hotel, at about 6 pm, when she was on her way home from work. She'd feel comfortable loaning me the equivalent of a few hundred shekels, enough to get me started, and then I could go straight onto the Metro and be at the Bolshoi well ahead of the ballet at 7 pm.

I was relieved and grateful, but also nervous. Now I really needed that code, not just to enjoy my travels and be safe but, more importantly to me, pay Rusina back as soon as possible.

But there was little I could do until I met Rusina at the Metro at 6 pm, so I went back to bed for another nap.

Moscow (Part VIII - Cash and Credit)

Click here for Parts I, IIIIIIVVVI and VII.

The first order of business was to get some money. I pulled on some clothes and brushed my teeth with water, then popped some gum to freshen my breath. Since I was still sick, the process of getting dressed turned out to be pretty exhausting, so I went back to bed for a while.

At the reception desk, I found a woman who spoke very, very basic English. Her English plus a sheet of paper on which to draw maps was enough for her to explain to me both where the nearest Metro station is, and where I could exchange money – a currency exchange station was right around the corner.

The neighborhood where my hotel was located was drab-looking, but Rusina had assured me it's safe. Even so, I put on my best New York "I'm not a tourist, I'm a confident person who knows where I'm going" affect, though I don't know how successful I was given that every step I took felt like an effort. I found the cash exchange very easily and discovered it is connected to a supermarket – a handy thing to know.

The woman at currency exchange spoke no English. Since I don't know how to count in Russian, I wrote down on a piece of paper how many rubles I want, and she nodded – she understood. I then handed her my credit card.

"No card," she said. "Cesh." She pointed to my wallet. "Cesh."

So. Currency exchange takes only cash. I had about 100 shekels in my wallet, that was all – not enough to get far, even if they do take shekels (I didn't ask, but the sign outside said only dollars and Euros). The woman pointed inside the supermarket and said "With card – machine. Take money machine."

The problem with her idea was that to take out money from the ATM with a credit card, you need the PIN code.

Now I knew what I'd really forgotten. The code to my credit card.

I slowly walked back to my hotel, thinking over my situation. No cash meant no rubles. No PIN code meant no cash. No PIN code, then, meant no money.

Moscow (Part VII - Wednesday)

Click here for Parts I, IIIIIIVV and VI.

When I woke up, it was dark outside and my phone said it was about 6:30 pm. But I didn't know if it was still Wednesday, or if I'd slept through Wednesday night and most of Thursday. The practical question was whether I was about to miss the ballet at the Bolshoi, which was on Thursday at 7 pm. A call to the front desk and some simple words in English combined with the help of my phrasebook determined that it was still Wednesday, thank God. The thought that I might have slept through my chance to go to the Bolshoi had almost made me cry.

I puttered around my room, changing into pajamas, eating a bowl of oatmeal – slowly, in case it hit my stomach wrong – and drinking lots of water (which tasted fine from the tap). At
8 pm, the phone rang in my room; Rusina had heard from the taxi driver that I was sick, and was calling to find out what was going on. I told her that after my nap I no longer felt on the verge of death, and that it had been tough but I think now I was well enough to take care of myself, I just need to take things slow. I told her that in the morning I'd go to exchange money and I think as long as I didn't push myself too hard, I'd be all right. I felt relieved that she'd called; at least someone now knew where I was and what was going on.

I watched a little TV before going back to bed. The shows in
Russia were the same mix as what I see in the States. Cooking shows, action shows, dramas, Family Guy, Friends. Everything was dubbed over in Russian, with the English just barely audible in the background. Comprehension was just beyond my reach. I watched a long infomercial about a container that also chops, grates, and slices your vegetables, and went back to bed. I couldn't brush my teeth because the toothbrush was in the depths of my suitcase and I didn't have the strength to look for it, and anyway I had no toothpaste. I didn't set my alarm.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Moscow (Part VI - The Flight)

Click here for Parts I, IIIIIIV and V.

I bet some of you were thinking after the last post that I slept through my alarm, but I didn't! I got up and showered and packed, and, though I was quite stressed about having left all this for the last minute, I did make it outside at 1:45, exactly on time. I felt proud of myself! I'd had only one hour of sleep, and my cat was injured and in a strange place, but I was running on time (that never happens!) and my packing list had been incredibly useful. My suitcase was a bit overweight, but I could solve that problem at the airport by moving a few items into my carry on (which I did).

Once I got into the van and we pulled away from my house, I wondered what I might have forgotten. Because everyone forgets SOMETHING! And then I realized, I hadn't packed toothpaste. Oh well, that's not a big deal. Surely near the hotel was a place I could buy toothpaste, maybe even at the reception desk. I felt proud for being so organized that the only thing I could think of that I'd forgotten was an easily-replaced toiletry item. 

I went over in my mind my plan for the next few hours: Get through airport security, change currency, sleep as much as I could on the flight, and, when I got to Moscow, buy a sim card for my phone. Rusina had arranged and pre-paid for a car service to pick me up, so that would be handy. And once I was at the hotel, I'd buy access to the hotel's wifi, let people know I'm OK, unpack and rest, and then see if there was still time to catch a museum or something before everything closed. It was a reasonable plan.


As I went through passport control on my way out of Ben Gurion, the very low-grade gastrointestinal rumblings I'd been feeling for the last day or two started to feel more desperate. I could feel my blood pressure drop and a wave of nausea roll over me. 

By the time I got to the duty-free area, where the money change store is, I was desperate to sit down or get to a bathroom or get to my gate – I didn't much care as long as I could crawl out of my skin. I'd have to buy rubles when I got to Moscow. At the gate I thought about canceling my trip – I could feel that I had a low fever, and the nausea was getting worse – but after everything that I'd been through to plan it, not to mention the non-refundable payments I'd made for the plane and hotel, cancellation was not an option. I'd be fine. If I could just get to a bathroom I'd be fine.

I spent the entire plane ride either sitting in my seat shivering, or throwing up. Yes, I made it to the lavatory every time, but just barely. There was a point at which a flight attendant was standing with me next to the lav, waiting for the person in there to come out, and I was leaning against the wall, sweat dripping down my face, moaning and silently praying that I didn't explode all over the El Al carpeting. The situation was quite desperate.  Apparently, all the energy that my body had needed the day before to stay calm and get everything done, it had diverted from digesting any food. 

By the end of the flight, I was so completely spent I could hardly stand. I asked the flight attendants to order a wheelchair for me to get me through the airport, because there was no way I could walk or even stay standing to wait in lines.

A man who spoke no English pushed me through the airport. Even if I'd had the head space to ask him to stop to get a sim card or rubles, I didn't know how to ask for those things in Russian. 

We met the taxi driver Rusina had sent, and I got transferred into his van. It took two hours to drive to my hotel because traffic was bad (later, on the way back, it was just one hour). I spent most of the time sleeping, but every time I opened my eyes, I saw ugly buildings. Moscow looked like one vast series of housing projects, like a vast Bronx, boxy and unredeemed.

The receptionists at the hotel did not speak English. I was transferred into my room (which looked exactly like the pictures on the site – clean and simple and nothing fancy but satisfactory) and I threw myself into the bed, feverish and scared.

I was now alone and sick in a hotel room in Moscow, with no cash and no way to reach anyone to tell them that I'm not OK.

Moscow (Part V - The Day Before)

Click here for Parts I, IIIII, IV.

I woke up very early, especially considering how late I'd been out at the vet, put Wylie in his carrier, and took him to work with me. I was scheduled to spend the day in Kiryat Gat, interviewing new olim (immigrants to Israel), and had to go to the office to pick up the Jewish Agency's car and camera I was to use. Wylie's carrier sat on my desk for an hour while I got myself organized, and a coworker down the hall wondered why she kept hearing a cat meowing. It was a bit strange and a bit embarrassing.

My friends Yardena and Mory Buxner volunteered to look after Wylie while I was away. Yasminah, my new roommate, is perfectly competent and willing to take care of a healthy cat, but an injured one who requires extra care was more than I could ask of a new roommate. 

Then, car, camera and cat all came with me to the vet, where I dropped Wylie off so he could have his wounds stitched up. The vet told me that afterward, Wylie would need to stay in a large cage, the kind they have there at the vet for big dogs waking up after surgery . . . she said they cost about 900 NIS but if I go online maybe I can find a used one, or someone who could loan me one. I was leaving for Moscow in a matter of hours and now had to find a cage. My wonderful coworker, Moran, agreed to search for me on Israeli websites.

Already running late, I drove to Kiryat Gat, a drive of about an hour and half, and met with several Ethiopians who had just immigrated to Israel. I like driving, but running late, and the stress that always comes from the journalistic unknown – would the people I need to interview be cooperative? Would there be language problems? Would they all show up? – was not helping. Meanwhile I texted with Moran about the type of cage I needed and tried to figure out the logistics of taking care of my job and the cat and my packing when I was about to spend the day in Kiryat Gat.

From Kiryat Gat I drove back to Jerusalem. Moran told me there is a pet supply store in Talpiot that sells the kind of cage I need for 200 NIS. Fine. I arrived at the store about 5:30 or 6 pm, where they showed me a picture of the cage, and it was perfect, but the only ones they had in stock were bigger ones for 260 NIS. Fine. Whatever. An employee carried the very heavy box to the car while I stressed some more about how to get the cage and Wylie to the Buxners' while also wrapping up my work projects and packing. I also remembered that I had to call the bank about making sure my new credit card was activated – which it was.

From Talpiot I drove home to drop off the cage, then to work to wrap up projects that needed to be finished before I left for Russia. At about 7:30 pm, the vet called saying they were closing soon and I needed to come get the cat.

So I ran out from work and got the cat, who struggled and fought against the carrier and the cone on his head. The vet said that she'd had to remove a lot of tissue, and hadn't been able to close skin over the entire wound, so he had an open injury on part of one leg. It was bandaged up and Yardena and Mory would have to bring Wylie back in a couple of days to change the bandages. They'd also have to go to the pharmacy the next day to get some pain medication for him. I felt guilty leaving him, and I felt guilty giving the Buxners so much to do. I was also feeling a lot of anxiety because I hadn't started packing yet.

At home, while Wylie struggled, I tried to stay calm and avoid panicking, while getting things ready to bring Wylie to what I was soon to start thinking of as the Buxner Animal Rehabilitative Center. I took the very heavy cage, the heavy cat, and a heavy bag full of cat food and supplies, and put it all in a taxi.

At their house – I paid the taxi driver extra to take the cage up the two flights of stairs -- Yardena and I unpacked the cage, which turned out to be . . . not at all what I'd wanted. It was not a cage at all, but a dog pen, with no roof. It would be a simple matter for any cat to jump out of this thing.  But it was too late to do anything about it – I was leaving the country in a few hours.

Yardena got on the phone and ordered a Nesher van service for me, from my house to the airport, while I put Wylie in his cage and we tried to figure out where to put his litter and food in a way that would create the least mess. It was clear that the pan of litter was not going to be adequate and that Wylie would have trouble eating and drinking with that cone on. He was so, so sad. And so was I. Leaving him in a strange environment when he was injured was heartbreaking.

I got a call from my parents. They and my sister had put a few hundred dollars into my Paypal account, to help pay for veterinary care. They wanted to make sure I had funds to cover the kitty, so that I'd still have the budget to have a good time on my vacation.

I went home and was too tired to pack. The van was coming at 1:45 am. It was now about 11:15 pm. If I slept for one hour, it would leave me just enough time in the morning to shower and pack before I left for the airport.

It had been a crazy day but I'd stayed calm and gotten done the most urgent things that had needed to get done. I felt grateful for my family and friends for all their help, and for the fact that this terrible day was over.