I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Oh Stalin, There Ain't No Pleasin' You

Our first full day in Moscow didn't really get going until gone midday. Sure, we had breakfast delivered to us at 9am - some bircher muesli and an activia yoghurt - but after that Helen went back to sleep and I spent 2 fucking hours trying to blog. Writing as much as I do takes a fair bit of time anyway, but that was nothing compared to the fail festival I was about to attend.

First, transferring photos from my phone to my iPad took 3 attempts, because AirDrop is shit. Then once I wrote everything, it wouldn't post - the Posts app just hung on "waiting to submit" and wouldn't let me get back at the text to copy and paste it. I quit the app and restarted it, to be presented with 10s of com.google.gDataServiceDomain 404 errors, but at least I could get back at the text. blogger.com worked OK, but wouldn't let me edit the text below what I could see on screen, and the paste had fucked up the spacing and inserted huge picture placeholders but not the actual pictures. Then my iPad keyboard kept dropping connection every 5 seconds, and I fell off the internet totally. Grargh. After about 40 minutes of rage and anger I managed to get a post of some description up, but the spacing was all still fucked and there were no pictures and I couldn't actually reach my blog (though every other site I wanted to use worked OK). So bollocks, I gave up in a huff and we set off out to actually do some tourism.

We are staying on the nameless island in the Moscow river, the site of the Red October factory and at the end of whch is the giant awful statue of Peter the Columbus. We decided to wander around the complex for a bit and immediately were overtaken on the pavement by a man carrying a sword. We found a small 24hr shop but it didn't sell toiletries, which was a shame as the hotel is somewhat lacking in shower gel and that. 5 beer fridges though. There are bars and coffee and donut places too. There's the nut production area, the packing area, the chocolate area, etc etc. Through to the south edge of the island and there are more bars, a photography exhibition, a gig venue and some restaurants. We mentally bookmarked one for later, based on it being a reasonable price and having a menu written in both Cyrillic and English at the base of the steps which led up to its roof terrace location.

It was bastard hot, again, but without bags and now wearing shorts and a comedy wide-brimmed hat it's survivable. Took some selfies approaching the Cathedral over the bridge and then walked through the gardens towards the Kremlin. Had the briefest of street hassle from a young man with a delightful cheap plastic "I'm a sailor boy" thing over his shoulders who wanted us to get a boat. Maybe later. There is of course nothing in the entirety of Russia that looks remotely gay, certainly not men in sailor outfits nor those in teeny teeny tiny tight shorts and vests, nor the hundred or so construction workers looking like 20% of a Village People convention. Nuh uh.

Up around the edge of the Kremlin through the pleasant gardens with much less construction going on than last year, Helen was enjoying herself but a bit perturbed by how non-bleak Moscow seems. This is not what the 80s taught us about Russia. There's all these people not queuing for bread and there's neat lines of well maintained flowers and there's colours other than grey and that. Damn it.

Past the eternal flame and unknown soldier and into Red Square. It's still not red and still not square. There's some kind of stage and outdoor seating thing being erected as if there's going to be a concert or public execution soon. Probably the former. We take a bunch of photos and then head into GUM, the hefting great department store/mall, with an intention to have a piss, buy some toiletries, and get some lunch. Food was courtesy of Stolovaya 57, the self-service Soviet-style canteen with cheap eats and bad cranberry juice. I had perch and mash plus some beetroot with prunes and walnut, and chicken pate with very hard bread. The chicken kiev with mushrooms, I am told, tasted like a chicken kiev from Sainsbury's might. The whole lot came to the same price as two pints. The English language signs around the place refer to the customers as comrades.

Wandering through GUM afterwards we did the full length of the supermarket in which last year I bought my vodka. The place only sells food and drink, still no toiletries. But back outside past the historic toilets and onto, um, a road whose name I forget, we find first another 24hr mini-mart and then a pharmacy. Also "London Grill" English pub - we didn't go in - and branches of Le Pain Quotidien and Subway. Hurrah! Really we are looking for a place to sit and have a pint, but there don't seem to be any. No, we're not going in fucking London Grill.

Deciding to cut a circle, we get to yet another preposterously large building that seems to be the Residents' Insurance building which is of some vague import. Along the street there is a woman in a cardboard sandwich board, protesting alone about something. Perhaps it says FIVE PROTEINS WITH FISH DAILY, we aren't sure. A stern uniformed lass talks at her and takes photos of the text as two men emerge from the Metro and try to intimidate, erm, both of them? Not sure. Back along the road where last year we had pie and bought Russian dolls, we nip into a souvenir shop and buy nothing.

Back at Red Square we take lots of photos of St Basil's: on its own, dual selfies, and solo shots of Helen. It was a photo of me in front of this place that was the first thing Helen ever saw of me, as it was my profile pic on Guardian Soulmates. So we figure that if we split up, a photo of her in front of it might do her well next time, since it worked for me.

We leave Red Square through the gates built in 1994 which recreate those that were there for hundreds of years before Stalin had them removed to make room for tanks. Helen goes briefly ballistic at the mere sight of a Jamie fucking Oliver restaurant, the fat-tongued Moskvy twat. I point out the Bolshoi ballet building and am pretty much done with the extent of my ability to get around without a map. Next to the metro station which Ian and I used as our pivot point last year there is a place with outside seating so we wonder if they will serve us just a drink.

The first page of the menu is wine. The next 9 pages are all beer. That'll do. I want to order the local Russian dark bread beer but am told they don't have it so settle for an O'Hara stout. It's a real spot-hitter. I get frustrated at wifi which provides only around 5 seconds of connection at a time, and blame the wind. A man walks past wearing a WWE wrestler t-shirt and I want to shout "I'm afraid I've got some bad news for you!" at him, but don't.

We feel pretty much done for the day, tourism-wise. It's been 28c and blazing sunshine all day and we've walked a fair distance. There's a sightseeing bus tour round the corner opposite my last "I know that!" thing in the vicinity, the parliament. We buy the 48hr ticket that lets us get on 2 bus routes and a boat and wait for them to leave. The audio commentary is oddly delivered but informative. The Russian parliament is not a place for discussion, the Bolshoi has a statue of Apollo who is the only sober taxi driver in Moscow, there is a road called Chinatown and no-one knows why because it has fuck all to do with China, double decker buses are great aren't they?, etc etc.

We spend the first half hour on the bus basically retracing the exact steps we've already walked. That there Residents' Insurance building is actually the KGB/FSB headquarters. GUM was once going to be demolished so they could make the People's Commissariat of Heavy Industry but the wives of the party leaders persuaded them to keep it as a shopping mall. Ivan the terrible asked the blokes that built St Basil's if they could do it again and they said yes, thinking they were going to get repeat business; Ivan blinded them all so no-one else would get such beauty.

Over to the island (still on the bus) and we do a circle round a park whch used to host "festivities, fist fights, and executions" but is now where "punks, goths, and rockers" hang out. No mods? And then we get off and walk back to the hotel, via the 24hr shop we scouted this morning. After some faffing I mumble "chetiri bud pozhalsta" and the woman behind the counter angrily understands me perfectly, giving me 180 rubles change and using a remote control to open the beer fridge from which we extract the 4 Budweiser I just expertly ordered. This tiny exchange exhausts me.

Back to the hotel and we crack open a beer and do some internet from the blogging sofa. Showers are had and we get changed to go out to the restaurant with the terrace.

The entrance is shut and there's a sign only in Russian, seemingly pointing to a ladder up a wall. Um. Oh wait, no, there are more stairs. OK. The menu at this entrance is also only in Russian but I'm sure that's fine. At the desk they say something to us but Helen cuts it off with "Hello!", announcing our Englishness. The lass goes, ah! and sets off to find the one member of waiting staff who speaks enough English to help us. We're given a table and some menus - the drinks menu is in English, the food menu only in Russian/Cyrillic. Oops.

Drinks order is taken. Yet again the drink I want is not available, so I have a Leffe Bruin (which I can at least pronounce better than them). We stare at the food menu for ages and I try to figure out if any of it is understandable. Some progress is made - I can make out the words for dim sum, soup, shashlik, sushi, and sushimi. We don't want any of those things really, apart from perhaps dim sum. The waiter comes to take our order and goes, oh, your menu is in Russian. What do you want? Helen asks for some kind of chicken with rice and I say yeah, I'll have the same, and also can we have assorted dim sum. He tells us what 5 of the 7 pieces will be but doesn't know the English for the other 2. That's fine. Food is on its way!

It's a really nice place, the Shaktiri terrace. We were out of our comfort zone, unexpectedly, but about to eat and had booze. The dim sum was decent - no idea what was in the blue parcel though. And the spicy chicken in gloopy (not ridiculous) sauce was lovely, with a bit of seaweed that was tiny in size but huge in flavour. Nom. They came and grabbed my plate as soon as it was empty, in fact this seems to happen a lot - no waiting for the whole table to finish, an empty plate must be removed ASAP. While doing so the waitress said somethng at me in Russian and I kinda reacted blankly and then shook my head. I don't know what I conveyed. We asked for the bill soon after, paid, and made our escape back to the Strelska bar where we understand how things work.

Well, sort of. On Tuesday the guy had served us drinks then gone back to juicing a lemon. Hadn't asked for money, hadn't obviously entered it into the till, just juiced a lemon. This time we sat down and waited for waiting staff which I was convinced was the right thing to do. It took a while but I was proved right - English language food and booze menus were brought and I got a Guinness, Helen a huge and strong mojito. Aaaaand relax. Thought about a second drink but then, nah, save the cash - we've got beer back at the hotel, so that's where we went. Lounged around on the blogging sofa until just after midnight: Happy birthday, Helen :)

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