don’t say “nyet” to vodka!

You know the old saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do!”  Well, in Russia that means becoming well-acquainted with straight shots of vodka!  While we won’t go quite as far as to say that downing vodka in Russia is like drinking water anywhere else in the world, saying “nyet” to an offer by a smiling Russian comrade is not really an option - even in broad daylight.  Come on, you don’t want to offend your host!

The taste of vodka too strong for you?  Trust us, once you get a little taste of that warming liquid after a freezing rummage through Izmaylovo Market (see "goodies"), sipping the stuff like the natives will become second nature, especially when its many varieties are so readily available from local convenience stores and roadside kiosk trailers alike.

Set of Drifters tip:  To cut the biting taste of vodka, try some of Russia’s famous pickled vegetable appetizers!  They make a surprisingly delicious combination.  And as they say... “Za zdaróve!”

"Help!  I am lost in the Arbat... or not.”

Since 99.99% of the signage in Moscow is printed in Cyrillic, those unfamiliar with the Slav tongue will find much difficulty in traversing through the city’s many concentric circles without the aid of decent, detailed maps in their own language, and Cyrillic... or local friends!  While we were lucky enough to have both, a “quick stroll through town” seemed virtually impossible.

Though geographically no two excursions are necessarily that far away from one another, the layout of the streets, some of which are 8-12 lane thoroughfares, offers many a loop-hole to veer off course.  On our final full day in Moscow, as Doug and his band engaged in a final rehearsal, I found this out all on my own while attempting a simple trek across town.  And even though the stroll provided me with a better grasp on the “real pulse” of Moscow, it was ultimately a mistake since I almost missed the band’s New Year’s Eve performance entirely!

Located northwest of the Kremlin in the Zemlyanoy Gorod, the “Arbat” is famous for its bohemian roots.  Taking the illustrious Metro to its main station, Arbatskaya, already had turned me around in the wrong direction towards the Beliy Gorod, and I never ended up even sampling a "чай" from one its many cafes!  Nevertheless, after connecting up with Red Square in the Kitay-Gorod neighborhood that hugs to the side of the Moscow River, I felt comfortable in the fact that I had already once made this trek back to the Kotelnicheskaya.  Sadly, as I followed along what I thought was one of the Kitay-Gorod’s main thoroughfares, I ended up overshooting it entirely through one of the Beliy Gorod's many web-like wedges, landing back in the Zemlyanoy Gorod... but on the other side of town!

You would think it might be a breeze to simply look at the street signage and compare it with your own map.  No such luck this time, since the guidebook I had was short on Cyrillic examples outside of the general alphabet.  It was New Year’s Eve and Moscow was closing down its sidewalks for the evening’s festivities.  As daylight turned dour, my poorly protected feet began freezing up, weary from exposure to the snow and ice all around.  I have to admit my heart was racing, worried that I would never make it back alive, much less in time for the show!

Desperate, I attempted to speak to an agent at the nearest Metro kiosk I could find.  (Yes, I was all the way out at the Krasnye Vorota station!)  With Moscow’s convenient subway system at my disposal, I was to be easily delivered back to the line that would ultimately connect me with the Kitay-Gorod station near our apartment.  Alas, when my weak Russian tangled with the surly agent’s imaginary English it was time to get out the map and point!

Once paying my fare at the bandshell-esque Krasnye Vorota station, I immediately felt better.  Maps inside the train cars actually show station names with alternate Latin characters!  (Gee, what a concept!)  I was back home within 20 minutes, completely frozen, yet wiser!  Cyrillic is more difficult to deal with than Japanese or even Sanskrit!  Because half of the letters resemble Latin ones, it tends to confuse you into submission!  Remember that Russian is a different language altogether.  Before traveling to Russia, make an attempt to recognize the characters, and at the very least, compare geographic neighborhoods, main streets and landmarks using both languages before you deplane!  Trust us, it will make your life a lot easier while in town!

Set of Drifters tip:
  So what are all of these gorods?  In medieval times, the center of Moscow was surrounded by various suburbs that kept class structure well in place.  Proletarians lived in the outlying "Earth City" (or Zemlyanoy Gorod) while the middle class walled themselves off in the "White City" (or Beliy Gorod).  The Kremlin butted up against the "China Town" (Kitay-gorod) though not named for reasons you or I may suspect.  It is believed that this neighborhood was originally called the Kita-gorod for a building technique found throughout the area. 

grocery shopping in Moscow!

If you are only able to speak English and read Latin characters, you may find yourself at a disadvantage in Moscow when is comes to ordering food from a menu, or buying essentials at a grocery store.  We were so lucky to have friends in town that could help us at restaurant, and yet when we ventured out into a supermarket, we would end up buying the same things each time since they were easy to work out from their shape and packaging alone.  Yes, when all is said and done, our diet in Moscow consisted of only five things, the staples of life in sub-zero temps:  bread, cheese, chocolate, caviar, and... well, vodka.

Bread is everywhere and it’s especially delicious when you find it from a bakery still warm!  We had the daily pleasure of chomping through fresh loaves with various types of cheese and caviar as spreads.  Both accoutrement are in high supply and at affordable prices from most markets, our favorite of which was the Smolensky Supermarket.

Naturally, chocolate bars in Russia are just as tasty and enticing, the lion's share of their fancy packaging focusing on a baby’s ebullient face!  Wash it all down with a couple of different varieties of vodka and you have the makings of a very decadent week!  Frankly, after a few days of non-stop indulgence, we were searching for something a little bit more adventurous like, say, a pizza?

Smolensky Supermarket - 54/2 Ulitsa Arbat (near the Smolenskaya Metro station), Arbat, Moscow, 011 (7) 095 777-7779

Pop!  Pop!  Fizz!  Fizz!

While on holiday, there are times when the most basic items can be a chore to locate.  Everyone needs to drink water, especially after a few back-to-back nights of never-ending vodka shots (see above).  You simply just need to restore your fluids!  Since the tap water from the Kotelnicheskaya did not taste so good to us, and we had no room in our luggage for a Brita filter, it was a no go for Moscow’s finest!  Yet, we still craved H2O!

While most convenience stores or grocery outlets sell bottled water, we did have a bit of trouble finding the right water!  For some reason, each time we would purchase a bottle that appeared to be “still,” we’d bring it back to our apartment, opening the lid onto to hear a fizzing surge of bubbles frantic to escape!  It started to become a running gag.  One day, we purchased five or six different brands of water, and sure enough, one after another, “squuuuuuirrrrrrrt.”  Carbonated!

Since no one in our group could read Cyrillic, we finally worked it out to ask store clerks for bottles “sin gas,” though even then it was still a 50/50 craps shoot!  The moral of the story is, there is no moral to the story in Moscow where water is concerned!  Just drink and be happy!