10:10:2002 - The day my life changed forever.
Shortly after breakfast I collected my things and made my way under the expansive and busy Kutuzovsky Prospect and then on towards the Kievskya metro station.
I found the ticketing system to be non-complex and I soon had a single fare ticket costing 7 roubles in my hand so I boarded the escalator for the ride down to the platform.
By this stage in my life I had ridden on many of the world’s rapid transport systems without incident and I was eagerly anticipating my experience on this particular one. I had heard many stories of grandiose stations with museum like qualities, immaculately clean platforms and a system that prided itself on engineering excellence and marked efficiency. But as I descended gracefully down the escalator there were a still a few simple facts that I was blissfully unaware.
First was that the Moscow Metro is one of the busiest and most extensive in the world. It carries 7million passengers per day (although I have seen the figure 9.5 million quoted on occasion). Two thousand identical trains, each with six carriages, scream through the tunnels at breakneck speed delivering this extraordinary number of passengers to their respective destinations - at intervals as low as 50 seconds (peak periods). It is certainly not a place for the faint hearted and I have spoken since with expats who have taken up to two weeks to obtain the courage to ride this system.
The other critical fact which had never come my way was that not a word of English could be found anywhere on the entire system, and I, of course, had not the slightest knowledge of any of the characters in the Russian alphabet.
It was therefore of no surprise that within minutes of boarding my first train I was completely confused and overwhelmed. The sheer number of people boarding and exiting the train at each stop left me reeling and I quickly realised the English translation of each station name on my map made no comparison to the station names on the wall of each station. Trying to control the rising panic I attempted to station count but with the passenger number swelling exponentially with each stop I quickly failed at that idea. The train screamed on through the tunnel and I resigned myself to the fact that I was completely lost.
Suddenly I noticed the passenger numbers beginning to ebb so I presumed the train had passed under the central district of Moscow and was heading back out into the suburbs on the other side. This observation gave me some comfort as it was in this area of Moscow where I needed to go. The train finally broke the surface and emerged into the weak autumn sunshine. I decided to use this opportunity to disembark and regain my orientation. Once off the train I began to relax and discovered to my immense surprise that underneath the English translation on my metro map was the Russian equivalent in small text. I compared the characters for each station on the line I was riding with the characters on the wall beside where I was standing. With tremendous excitement and relief I found a name that matched and I finally knew my location. I had overshot my stop by just two stations so I quickly moved to the opposite platform and promptly caught the next returning train.
Surfacing at my stop I encountered yet another obstacle. The station had several exits which straddled a busy road and the sidewalks were heavily trafficked with pedestrians. I had not even a hint as to Sergei’s appearance. Without a mobile phone I had no way of communicating with him. Fortunately a cultural quirk came to my aid as Sergei, recognising me instantly from quite a distance as a “foreigner”, appeared from across the road to collect me.
After a vigorous handshake and a brief exchange of pleasantries he assured me his office was nearby and we quickly made off in direction which he had been pointing.
As we walked along the paths between rows of apartment blocks I was able to study my companion in more detail. He responded dutifully to my questioning and seemed eager to get down to business. I considered Sergei to be slightly younger than myself, a tall, lean man dressed entirely in black. On his feet were pointed leather shoes and he wore denim jeans and a thin woollen polo-necked jumper covered by shiny leather jacket. He walked with loping strides with his head down and slightly hunched shoulders. Between the rows of dilapidated apartment blocks, all victims of Soviet architecture, were large deciduous trees; naked and prepared for the harsh Russian winter to come.
Suddenly we turned a corner and Sergei pushed through a heavy metal door revealing a dirty and unpleasant smelling concrete stairwell which we used to ascend one level. Then I was led down a hallway a short distance before Sergei opened a door and ushered me through.
His office was long and narrow. Against one wall was a young girl sitting at a desk opening mail which I presumed was the result of the opportunities being offered by the website. Behind her was a geeky looking boy engrossed in a computer screen and at the far end, facing the exterior wall, were two work stations placed either side of a window which looked out onto the next apartment building. A woman sat with her back to us at one of the workstations.
Sergei spoke to the woman in Russian and she turned and smiled politely. She was introduced to me as Lena (name changed to protect identity), his wife, and as I shook her hand I sensed a reassuring warmness and kindness. I was offered a chair and Sergei and Lena continued their conversation in Russian. Suddenly Lena reached for a catalogue, which was sitting on her desk, and placed it on my knees. Once opened I instantly recognised the list of profiles as being those on the website. My confidence soared with the success of this small piece of detective work and I rejoiced in the knowledge that this agency was genuine contender at helping me find a companion for my stay in Moscow and I readied myself to list the ladies I was interested in meeting.
Then Lena produced some loose photos which she placed on the catalogue for me to see. I could tell from her facial expression and the few words which she uttered that she considered this girl to be the one for me. To my surprise they were photos of the girl Olga who I had first seen on their website in Helsinki. I was quite taken aback but I shook my head and explained to Sergei that she was not quite the type of woman I was looking for. I could tell Lena was disappointed by my decision and she turned away.
I kept speaking with Sergei and gave him the list I carried in my pocket. He suggested I use his computer to write a brief bio and my reason for visiting Moscow, to be used when speaking with the ladies on my list. This task I completed successfully and as I prepared to leave the office, Lena turned back to Sergei and they had a brief exchange in Russian. Sergei then translated the conversation for me and explained that his wife had just been speaking with Olga over the phone and had arranged a meeting with her that evening. I was moved by Lena’s commitment to the cause so without wanting to offend and with nothing to do that evening anyway I agreed to the meeting.
Lena could barely contain her joy and I glimpsed a large smile as she returned to her desk. Sergei, meanwhile, began explaining to me the time and location of the meeting. He also explained that due to Olga’s excellent English a translator should not be necessary, but it was usual practice for him to attend to perform introductory duties, however, due to a prior commitment that would not be possible. This, I told him, would not be an issue as I was more than comfortable meeting Olga alone. After bidding Lena and Sergei goodbye I left the small office to catch the train back to my hotel.
The meeting at 7pm was to take place beside a fountain situated on the bottom level of an underground shopping complex adjacent to the Kremlin in Moscow’s central district. As I rode the train back to my hotel I decided to stop off and visit the location to gain some familiarity of the area in preparation for that evening.
Reaching the station which Sergei recommended I use, I alighted and endeavoured to navigate the interconnecting walkways to reach the shopping centre. Immediately I became lost in the maze of walkways, interconnected metro stations, Russian writing and levels all congested with impossible numbers of people. Quickly reaching a state of self-preservation I simply gave up on finding the shopping centre and opted for the simpler challenge of reaching the surface. This on its own was still not an easy task and I was grateful to feel again the sun on my face although having solved one problem I quickly encountered another. I had absolutely no idea where I was. The streets which I had entered upon were small and lined with four or five story buildings with no distinguishing features, not too dissimilar to being in a canyon with no idea of the way out. I scanned what little I could see of the sky for landmarks but there were none. My map proved to be inadequate in such an area so all I could do was walk and hopefully come upon something which I could recognise. The thought of missing my meeting with Olga due to being lost in Moscow crossed my mind.
Just as following the flow of a small stream will eventually bring you to a river, walking through the small streets finally brought me to a busier street inhabited with the occasional taxi. With the day drawing to a close time was becoming critical so I stopped a taxi and was relieved to hand the burden of navigation over to the driver.
The tall silhouette of the Hotel Ukraina was a welcome sight in the far distance as we drove along Kutuzovsky Prospect and I was delighted to be returned back into familiar surroundings.
Once back safely in my room my thoughts turned towards my meeting with Olga. I washed, shaved, dressed and decided without doubt to utilise one of the taxis parked in front of the hotel to return to the meeting point.
This decision proved entirely fruitful as my driver deposited me within metres of the entrance of the underground shopping centre and with time to spare it became a simple matter of finding my way to the lowest floor and locate the fountain.
Once there I stepped back out of the way of the continuous flow of pedestrians and checked my watch. There was still a little over ten minutes till 7pm so I settled into a spot of people all the while keeping a nervous eye on the fountain. As I waited it suddenly occurred to me that I was aware of Olga’s appearance but she would have no idea of mine. I straightened and became more alert, scanning the area with a greater sense of urgency. The flow of people was unrelenting and the air was awash with loud conversation. With everyone’s identity partially concealed under jackets, coats and other warm articles of clothing I began to wonder if I would ever find her amongst the passing throngs.
Suddenly, in a gap between the people, I saw a face which was familiar beside the fountain. She returned my gaze, smiled softly and turned away momentarily before turning back to face me. Her face lit up with recognition and we moved towards each other. She wore a brown fur coat which came up warmly around her neck, her blonde hair was from her profile pictures and her eyes sparkled with her smile. Her hand reached out and as I accepted the handshake she spoke excitably in a voice laced with a delightfully, exotic accent, “Hello, my name is Olga!”