The St. Petersburg airport is a good two hours by train and bus from the city proper. The travel agent, through whom I had made my hotel reservation in Moscow, had told me that the cheapest way to get to the airport was a train-cum-bus combination. I was on my way to the airport, en route to Moscow.
I had also been advised by the same travel agent about where in St. Petersburg to catch the train, where to change trains, and where to catch the connecting bus to the airport. But I had misheard the name of the station where I had to switch trains as Moscow Square.
“There is no station called Moscow Square,” a young lady on the train, whom I requested to alert me when we arrived there, said. “It’s Moskovskaya. I will be changing trains at the same place. You can come with me.”
“You are my savior,” I told her. “Even if there is a station called Moscow Square, I wouldn’t have recognized it. If you don’t know Russian, you are lost here. Nothing is written in any language other than Russian. You know that is not the case in other major European cities. Even in China, English is becoming very popular.”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “We are getting there. It won’t be as fast as some of us want it. But we certainly are opening up.”
“You speak very good English. Where did you learn it?” I asked her.
“I learned it in London. I teach English and French at the university here.”
“Wow, I am happy for you,” I told her. “Are there many students keen on learning foreign languages?”
“Yes, my English class is always full. We always have more students wanting to enroll than we can accommodate. Many of them have to be put on the waiting list for the next session.”
“I am glad to hear that people are recognizing the importance of learning English,” I said. “You will agree with me that in this era of information technology, progress is not possible without some knowledge of English. Why is it that even in a cosmopolitan city like St. Petersburg, announcements on trains and buses are only in Russian?”
“I told you we’ll get there. Give us some time.”
I could sense that she didn’t like my question. What she said next confirmed it. “Some of the Indians I come across here are horrible in their use of English. How do you explain that?”
The question made me a little uncomfortable. After a few seconds, I was able to come up with an explanation: “I am sure you are talking about the Indian students you meet at your university. Most students who are good at English prefer going to American and British universities. Maybe the ones you are talking about are science and technology students. Or those who came here to learn the Russian language. English is not their forte.”
“You may be right,” she said, more to change the topic than in agreement with what I said. “This is your Moscow Square,” she said when the train slowed down and the approaching stop was announced.
“No, Moskovskaya,” I told her. “Learn to say it properly.”
She liked my teasing. Both of us laughed and got off the train. I followed her to another platform and got on the train that arrived there. “I will be going further,” she said. “I will show you where you have to get off to catch the airport bus.”
We were together for about fifteen more minutes and talked about many more things. I couldn’t help bringing up the previous year’s presidential election in Russia, which was mocked in the US media. In terms of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, one could serve as president only for two consecutive terms.
Vladimir Putin’s two terms ended in 2008. In the next election—held in March 2008—his handpicked nominee, Dimitry Medvedev, won the presidency by a landslide. Within hours of taking office, on May 7, 2008, Medvedev nominated Putin as prime minister of the country, and the Russian Parliament confirmed it the next day. Rumors were rife at the time that the whole thing was engineered by Putin with a view to clinging to power after his constitutionally mandated two terms ended. He was the real power behind the Medvedev presidency, the Western media reported.
“Why is Putin reluctant to give up power completely?” I asked her.
“Many of us feel the same way,” she said. “But then, unless you are really into politics, these things don’t bother you much. I am not political. Where have you been staying in St. Petersburg?”
I got the message: She was more interested in changing the subject than getting an answer to her question. My answer to her next question touched upon another problem in the country most Russians are uncomfortable talking about: alcoholism. When she asked me whether I enjoyed my stay at the bed-and-breakfast place, I replied, “Yes, except for the constant grunting and frequent use of the bathroom by the hostess’s alcoholic ex-husband. He and I had to use the same bathroom.”
I told her about the post-divorce modus vivendi between the hostess and her ex-husband.
“Yes,” she said, nodding her head, “alcoholism is a big problem in our country.”
When the train arrived at the station where I had to get off, she shook hands with me and said, “I enjoyed talking with you.”
“I am so happy,” I replied, holding her hand between my palms, “that my trip to Moscow started this pleasantly.”
She blushed. The pretty university teacher looked prettier when she blushed.
She Promotes Russia Abroad
An equally pleasant experience was waiting for me on my flight by Aeroflot to Moscow. Sitting next to me on the plane was another attractive Russian woman. She also spoke good English. She had been living in Stockholm for five years and was going to Moscow on a two-week vacation. Her parents and many childhood friends still lived in Moscow, she told me. Her boyfriend, a farmer, lived in the northern countryside of France. She visited him as often as her work schedule permitted.
She worked in corporate communications. Her job involved making PowerPoint presentations to Swedes and other Scandinavians on business opportunities available in Russia and on how to go about setting up businesses there. She was one of the beneficiaries of Russia’s latter-day opening up to the world. “We may not become as open as America,” she said, “but there is no going back on the openness you are witnessing now. The same is true of the slow process of democracy that you can see evolving now. We have a long way to go. There is no doubt about it.”
I showed her the address of the hotel in Moscow where I would be staying and asked how to get there from the airport. She explained to me the quickest and cheapest way of doing it. Then she opened her handbag and took out a map of the Moscow metro system, which had everything written in Russian.
Pointing to a spot on the map, she said, “This is Partizanskaya metro station. It was called Izmailovsky Park before. This is where you will be getting off. Your hotel is only walking distance from here.” Pointing to another spot on the map, she added, “I am going in the same direction up to this place. I will show you which train to take from there.”
After getting off the plane, we got on an airport shuttle bus, which took us to a nearby train station. The train to Moscow City was about to leave. We had to buy tickets in a hurry and run to catch it. “This airport-to-Moscow express train service was recently introduced,” she told me as we ran to the train.
Once we reached the crowded Moscow station, she started walking fast and gestured to me to follow her. Maybe she was getting late for her connecting train. Though old enough to be her father, I followed her like an obedient child when she switched from platform to platform and train to train. When we reached the station where we had to get onto sparate trains, she gave me the only railway map she had and said, “I will pick up another one on my way.”
She told me the number of stations I would be passing before reaching Partizanskaya. She knew that for this illiterate in the Russian language, the number of stations I would pass was the key, not their names.
I could see that she was in a hurry, but I couldn’t let her go that fast when she shook hands with me. I kept holding her hand and said, “I don’t know how to thank you. Without your help, I would have been lost. How much time I would have wasted, and how much frustration I would have gone through trying to figure out all this by myself.”
“Don’t worry,” she said, “it’s my duty.” She gave me a hug and rushed onto the train that arrived on the opposite platform. “Take the first train that arrives,” she shouted. “All of them go in the direction of your hotel.”
I was overwhelmed by the touchingly helpful nature of the young lady, who was a total stranger until three hours before. The train I had to catch arrived in a minute or so.
The Partizanskaya station is on the outskirts of Moscow. Compared with the few stations in Moscow I had just gone through, it is a simple one. I knew it was only a few minutes’ walk from the station to Izmailovo Hotel. Getting there was made easier by another young Russian woman. We got off the same subway car. I asked her which exit was closer to Izmailovo Hotel.
“I am going to the same hotel,” she said. Then she took a good look at me and added, “Are you from India?”
When I told her yes, she gave me a big smile. “I thought so,” she said. “I lived in Vizag for a year. I know you call it Visakhapatnam. I loved my stay in India.”
She worked for Gazprom, the largest natural-gas company in Russia, and one of the largest in the world. She had been part of a Russian team that was sent to Visakhapatnam, in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, when Gazprom had entered into a collaborative venture with India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation. Based in Siberia, where Gazprom’s main operations are, she had come to Moscow to attend a conference. The conference was held at Izmailovo Hotel.
The hotel is a sprawling complex with four wings—Alfa, Beta, Vega, Gamma-Delta—each functioning as a separate entity. Built on the eve of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the entire complex has 7,500 rooms and can accommodate 10,000 guests at a time. I was booked in the Vega wing of the hotel.
The India-loving Russian showed me the direction in which I should be going and shook hands with me. She was staying in the Gamma-Delta wing.
“I will be staying here for three days,” I told her. “We may run into each other again.”
Russians Dance to “Lady in Red”
I was pleasantly surprised to know, when I checked into the hotel, that the TV in my room had access to the BBC News in English, twenty-four hours. A small consolation, given the fact that the rent I was paying was beyond my budget. Some miscommunication between me and the agency that made the hotel reservation for me caused me to pay more than what I was told originally.
After relaxing for a while in my room, I came out and wandered around the hotel complex. Toward sunset, I ambled into one of the restaurants in the complex. I sat in an isolated corner and ordered a beer.
A two-piece band, consisting of a keyboard and a guitar, was playing at the time. The keyboardist and the guitarist took turns in singing. The former sang Russian songs and the latter English. What made my first evening in Moscow memorable was not the restaurant or the band or the singing. It was something else.
Whenever the keyboardist sang classical Russian songs, a young girl, maybe eight or nine years old, rose from her seat and started dancing. She did not do it in the dance area in front of the musicians. She did it in the narrow space between tables. The parents of the girl and all the patrons in the restaurant enjoyed the dance. The girl was not at all self-conscious. One could tell that she enjoyed dancing more than we enjoyed watching it.
The parents allowed me to capture their daughter’s dance on my camera. I told them that she was so talented and, if nurtured properly, would become a great dancer. I had no way of telling whether they understood what I said. But they knew that what I said was something good. The appreciative smile and nod they gave confirmed to me at least that much.
Hardly anyone around spoke any English. Not even the waiters. The ignorance of English didn’t stand in the way, though, of their enjoying all the English songs the guitarist sang. Three couples danced to most of those songs. But when the guitarist sang “Lady in Red,” the small dancing area became crowded.
The romantic song by Chris de Burgh has been a favorite of mine ever since I first heard it. The album with the song on it, which was released in 1986, had instantly become a best-seller in twenty-five countries. But I couldn’t figure out why a small crowd in an unremarkable restaurant in Moscow found this particular song their favorite of the evening.
“Are they still getting nostalgic when they hear the word red?” I wondered.
(Published on Marxh 19, 2017. This is a slightly edited version of Chapter 12 from the author's book, An Indian Goes Around the World – II: What I Learned from My Thirty-Day European Odyssey. The book can be ordered online at amazon.com, xlibris.com and Barnes and Noble.)
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