Government building on Smolenskaya Ploshad.

Moscow underground

Our last day in Moscow was bright and sunny, rare in Moscow in winter, and not too cold. After visiting the staff at the cruise company’s office, to discuss some arrangements for my trip to the North Pole, I lingered near the station, waiting for Dina. The great, wide Smolenskaya Ploshad is exactly like the stereotypical picture of a Soviet-era boulevard, with its huge, imposing government buildings. Ducking into an office building, I found a more modern representation of the New Russian capitalist lifestyle, with several floors of elegant shops selling expensive luxury items (and few shoppers able to afford anything in them). No traditional Russian music or pounding Euro-techno Muzak here; soft American smooth jazz emanated from the speakers, a reminder of home.

Upon exiting the building, I heard a noise above me and looked up in time to see, and dodge, chunks of ice falling from several floors up, one of which caught me on the wrist. The bruise and soreness lingered for several days. It was, in a way, symbolic; the ice from above was beckoning me.

Dina and I connected at the Metro station and walked to nearby Arbat Street, one of Moscow’s main tourist attractions, full of shops, restaurants and street vendors. After the big birthday blowout for her mom, and the time spent with friends and family, this was our free day, to explore with no responsibilities, to eat, drink and be married, as she often says in her fractured English.

Arbat Street.

A German restaurant looked promising and we decided to have lunch there. Down the stairs of the quiet, nearly empty basement eatery, the décor was an odd mixture of German beer hall, French prints, American jazz and live birds in cages. The menu was, to put it mildly, lost in translation; the inadvertent rendering of some dishes on the English version would probably be rated PG-13. Two Russian dowagers were finishing up at a nearby table, at an hour when most patrons were just coming in, and two young businessmen showed up and promptly ordered absinthe. That’s what I call a power lunch.

We had decided that on this trip, which on the way home would include Paris, we would mostly avoid tourist sights. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring some of Moscow’s back streets and out-of-the-way places, and had dinner at a chic continental restaurant.

The colorful lights of the Moscow night.

Dina took a cab back to her mom’s place and I walked a while longer, taking in the lights and sights of the night. As I made my way back toward the Metro, I thought for a while that I was lost, until I came to what looked like the station entrance. It looked unfamiliar, and as I struggled to read its map in Russian, I suddenly realized that it was not the Metro at all, but a pub, the names on the map not of stops, but of the various beers served within. (What is this Pilsner station, I thought.) Eventually I found the real station, and my way home.

At 5:30 the next morning, I waited outside the apartment for the driver who would take me to pick up Dina and make our way to the airport. As I stood freezing in the dark, tears streaming down my face from the cold, my mind wandered to the North Pole, and the thought that this cold would be nothing by comparison. As we bounced along in the van, the day’s first light only beginning to illuminate the frozen Moscow River, I thought, do you really want to swim at the Pole? Are you serious? We passed a junkyard, where a pack of the wild dogs that are ubiquitous in Moscow sat calmly, used to and oblivious to the cold. They were handling it much better than I was.

A quiet late-evening walk.