Patrick, Patrick’s Mom, Leslie, & Jude on a boat tour in St. Petersburg. Patrick’s parents met up with us in St. Petersburg and are traveling with us through Finland and Estonia as well.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”) revolutionized the way many Americans live, work, and travel.  This landmark legislative achievement helped Americans, and visitors to our shores, enter and exit public buildings and spaces with ease, regardless of whether they walked or perambulated by different means, by requiring that, in the case of all “new construction,” ramps or elevators be provided wherever there were also stairs.  The ADA had the added benefit of helping parents with small children in strollers get around more easily.  Unfortunately, there is no ADA in Russia, a fact of which we became acutely aware after spending 36 hours in Moscow, and three full days in St. Petersburg.

The only way to enter many buildings in Russia is by stairway; many of these stairways are steep, and most narrow.  There is a surprisingly large number of stairways in Russia too.  Many buildings have short stairways where none would appear necessary.  A lot of times, sidewalks come to abrupt endings due to construction or for some other reason, forcing pedestrians onto the street; unsurprisingly, this can be pretty scary when you’re pushing a two-year-old whose life you are responsible for.

In St. Petersburg, the only way to walk down certain streets is to ascend to elevated arcades, accessible only by walking up stairs, some crumbling, and all steep.  Most aggravating for those of us pushing strollers, to cross certain large boulevards in Moscow, pedestrians are forced underground to traverse passageways containing two flights of stairs, one going down underground and one back up.  During busy times, the stairways under these boulevards become crowded; people move quickly; and nobody feels like waiting for a slow person taking up lots of space and walking with a suspended stroller.

Beyond the physical challenges of getting around Russia with a stroller, another challenge was linguistic, and entirely of our own making.  We don’t read Cyrillic (I made a game effort on the train, but was only batting about .500 with the alphabet by the time we left, and don’t even get me started on the letters that just have the effect of softening or hardening other letters).  Almost no streets in Moscow have Roman signage (most in St. Petersburg did).  This was especially problematic in that our Western hotel gave us a map that only showed the street names in Roman characters, i.e., we couldn’t even match up physical street names that were incomprehensible to us with the identical (and incomprehensible) street signs on our map.

Moscow

We would highly recommend that anyone planning on traveling to Russia, and especially Moscow, spend some time learning Cyrillic before arrival.  Alternatively, you could try speaking a little Russian yourself, at least enough to get by.  The fact that we couldn’t even ask anyone for directions was a problem, because very few people that we met spoke English, even at touristic places.

Despite what our guidebook said, and despite what Alex had told us, we did not find Russians to be particularly good with kids, or patient with bad behavior.  (Part of this may be explained by what our lovely B&B owner in St. Petersburg, Natalia, told us: Russians generally do not engage strangers, and do not smile at anyone unless they already know the person.  In other words, although few Russians ever demonstrated any interest in or affection for Jude, this may have just been because he was a stranger, and their culture dictates that a certain distance be maintained.)

One of the least pleasant moments of our trip came on the train from Moscow to St. Petersburg.  Our train left on or around Jude’s naptime, and he was already a little cranky and tired by the time we boarded.  (Leaving at naptime wasn’t the best move on our part, and clearly had a negative impact on Jude’s behavior.  If we had to do it again, we probably would take an early morning train, and would not gamble with Jude’s naptime.)

Unlike the junker that is the Trans-Siberian railroad train, the Moscow-St. Petersburg train, is a fast, efficient and QUIET feat of modern engineering.  The problem here, of course, was that everyone could hear Jude screaming.  And scream he did, for about two of the four and a half hours that we were on the train.

Things came to a head when I went to the café car to get us snacks.  I expected to be back in my seat quickly.  Instead, an American man overheard my appalling Russian as I ordered some drinks and snacks.  He intuited that I was American, and introduced himself as Bob ˍˍˍˍ from Corpus Christi, Texas.

Mr. ˍˍˍˍ was a retired railroad conductor.  He loved Russia, and Eastern Europe even more.  Mr. ˍˍˍˍ had been coming to Eastern Europe and Russia for 25 years for some type of train-conductor conventions that he wanted to speak to me about, at length.  I smiled as he droned on and on in his slow southern drawl.  The problem was, time was ticking, and I knew that Bliss would not be happy to be left alone with Jude who, mood wise, was on a razor’s edge (compounding matters, Bliss could not leave her seat without me there, because someone had to remain to keep an eye on our bags).  Once Mr. ˍˍˍˍ, in basically recounting his life story to me while sipping a scotch, started making some fairly racist remarks about his former employees, I took the opportunity and made a break for it.

When I returned to our seats, Bliss had small tears streaming down her face and Jude was fussing about something or other.  Bliss told me that Jude had been screaming nearly since the time that I left.  “People here aren’t nice,” she said.  Rather than sympathizing with her as a parent alone with a small child, our fellow passengers had apparently been shooting her nasty looks, and leaving the carriage, not trying in any way to disguise their anger.  (When I had taken Jude for a walk around the train at the beginning of the trip, the Chinese tourists onboard greeted him with smiles and waves, as did a group of elderly Spaniards traveling together.  True to character, not a single Russian onboard gave him so much as a wink or a nod.)

Trying to save the day, I scooped up Jude and held him with me in the space between carriages (it wasn’t soundproof, but better than being in the middle of a crowded carriage).  Jude literally screamed in my ears for the remainder of the train ride as I held him in my arms.  A guy gave me a nasty look, and I shrugged.  There was nothing I could do.

Jude wouldn’t take food or drink; he wouldn’t stop screaming while I sang quietly to him; and he wouldn’t go to sleep.  Afterwards, when we got off the train and he fell asleep in the taxi to the B&B, my ears still rung from him having screamed into them for so long.

Despite all of this, we liked Russia.  I’m not sure I could recommend it in good conscience to someone traveling with a small child, but some of what we saw was truly magnificent, and I will not forget our visit anytime soon.

Saint Basil's Cathedral in Red Square, Moscow

Moscow was better than I expected.  With no exceptions, everyone I talked to ahead of our trip who had been to Russia told me that while Moscow was “OK” or “disappointing” even, St. Petersburg was “fantastic,” “amazing,” “beautiful,” and/or “very European.”  St. Petersburg was those things; but Moscow, I feel, gets a bum rap.  Moscow is vibrant and fun.  I didn’t feel any sense of danger, and we didn’t witness any overt acts of corruption, about which nearly everyone has a story (apart from the smuggling we saw on the train platform after getting off the Trans-Siberian).   The Red Square is gorgeous; I woke up early on our second morning to go for a run on it and around the Kremlin walls as well.  Watching the sun come up over the beautiful old buildings, with the peculiar onion-shaped, multi-colored domes of St. Basil’s looming nearby was breathtaking.

We also ate fantastic Georgian food at a restaurant recommended to us.  The khachapuri (cheesy bread) was otherworldly.  In fact, we liked it so much that we went twice.  The restaurant was very large and empty during our early dinners, and the Georgian owner was good with Jude.  Food prices in Moscow are generally very high, so it is worth noting that this place was a comparative bargain.  (We also tried a Georgian restaurant in St. Petersburg.  Unfortunately, it was only so-so.  Cheesy bread, though, is like pizza: even when it’s bad it’s good.)

Jude at the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

My favorite part of St. Petersburg was visiting the Hermitage, which holds one of the world’s best and vastest art collections, including oeuvres by Rembrandt, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Matisse, in a palace once inhabited by Russian tsars.  Jude’s favorite part was watching cars coming and going from the market across the street from our B&B; when a car entered, a yellow and white bar operated by a chain-smoking Russian man would raise 90 degrees.  “Car coming soon!” Jude would yell, or “Up bar!”  My parents met us in St. Petersburg, and my mom patiently sat with Jude listening to him remark upon entering and exiting vehicles.

One word of advice: if you are traveling with a two-year-old, maybe skip Lenin’s Tomb.  Scary, unsmiling Russian soldiers (think Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV) holding large automatic rifles stand guard as tourists are forced to walk slowly and in single file past the great preserved Bolshevik.  We saw these guards angrily shush a Chinese couple whispering to each other.  Jude, not content with simply admiring the revolutionary corpse, saw fit to shout “Man! Man!” to us in observation.  I wasn’t taking any chances and muffled him with my palm.  Thankfully, Jude, possibly sensing the macabre attitude of those nearby, didn’t fight back and quieted down.  Still, had I known exactly what to expect, I would not have taken my chances with bringing Jude to the mausoleum.

One other note regarding childcare in Russia, Russians (out of superstition, according to our guidebook) wrap up in very warm clothes, at the hint of any cold weather.  They likewise disapprove of parents that don’t wrap up their children in very warm clothes, and especially those that fail to put small children in hats.  We didn’t initially have a hat for Jude (it did not feel that cold to us!) and a woman in front of the GUM Department Store on Red Square let us know, by gesture, how unhappy she was with us.  Other Russian women gave us disapproving looks.  Ultimately, we bought him a winter hat in St. Petersburg, but only when the weather dropped into the 40’s (Fahrenheit).

ALL PICTURES FROM MOSCOW: here
ALL PICTURES FROM ST. PETERSBURG: here

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Patrick

  One Response to “Moscow and St. Petersburg: Georgian Food on My Mind”

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