Thursday, 21 March 2013

Chapter 46: Romancing in Moscow (Part 2)

Olga proved a worthy tour guide and educator.

First on her agenda was teaching me to recognise the characters in the Russian alphabet. This became the precursor to me being able to read and recognise signs. The literature filling the street-scapes began to transform into something familiar. A new world was opening up to me as I saw that much of the advertising had similar undertones to my homeland. Olga insisted that I practice what I was learning by reading Russian street signs.

She also showed me a simple trick which transformed the way by which I used the Metro. There was a small sign which I hadn’t noticed before showing the symbol for a stairway. This simple sign, she explained to me, indicated the way to a connecting station. Suddenly I was able to navigate my way through the complexity of the Metro with considerably more ease.

And thirdly she explained to me an extremely practical Russian custom of catching a taxi. Any person who is driving by and would like to earn some money will stop, Olga explained. “Then you negotiate a fare and get in.” I was uncomfortable with this idea of getting into the car of a complete stranger but she assured me it was a perfectly normal way for people to get around Moscow. With a certain degree of scepticism I tested the concept and it wasn’t long before I was completely at ease and thoroughly enjoying this convenient, not to mention extremely cheap, mode of transport. It delighted me meeting new and interesting people and listening to their taste in music for the duration of the journey. It reminded me of my university days when part of my daily routine was hitchhiking to campus.

Armed with these new skills I was able to travel throughout Moscow with confidence and ease, meeting Olga, upon her request, in new and interesting sections of the city each evening, at the conclusion of her work. We would walk the streets with her eagerly sharing every interesting tit-bit of information that related to the area. She even showed me the site of the first McDonalds in Moscow, and where the end of the queue reached several blocks away on opening day.

Over the weekend we drove beyond the outer ring-road (the unofficial border between Moscow and the rest of Russian) to small towns crammed with whitewashed, walled churches topped with golden, onion domes glistening in the weak autumn sun and surrounded by babushkas, sitting at trestled tables, selling matryoshka dolls.

During one of our strolls through Moscow Olga invited me to join her to see Swan Lake performed by the Bolshoi Ballet Company at the Bolshoi Theatre. I eagerly accepted this invitation, so she negotiated the purchase of tickets from a street vendor. I overheard the lively exchange and when she returned to me she laughed saying the man had told her she was a “fox”. I presumed the meaning of “fox” was the same as in my vocabulary and with a smile upon my face I mentally had to agree with the vender.  

The evening at the Bolshoi Theatre was memorable for two reasons. Firstly the ballet was breathtaking and on a level of aesthetic brilliance which I could never have imagined. Accolades of “Bravo” filled the air at the conclusion of the performance and flowers and bouquets rained down on the stage around the performers. It was a truly remarkable spectacle which I felt privileged to have witnessed.

The evening was also memorable for what happened on the way back to Olga’s car. Up to that point our courting had been limited to holding hands, brushing against each other, walking arm-in-arm and sitting closely together at every opportunity, each one hesitant to make a more intimate move. Walking home that night Olga surprised me by pulling me into an alley way and kissing me. A wonderfully long, warm and passionate kiss which transformed our relationship completely. We moved past an imaginary line into a new dimension, a new phase. We became free and uninhibited from that moment on and we sensed a bond developing between us. We became a couple in love.

As if to reinforce our new status, the following evening we met at an authentic Russian restaurant called Samovar (the same name given to a device used by Russians for heating water to make tea). We were greeted by an elderly man playing a grand piano accompanied by a woman vocalist, who throughout our entire meal, performed romantic Russian songs. With the restaurant practically deserted the entire time, we were easily able to imagine that the songs were for our benefit alone.    

By now the date of our departure to St Petersburg was nearing so I made attempts to purchase plane tickets. There was a travel agent in the hotel’s lobby so I put the question to the young girl sitting behind the counter. Her terse reply was simply, “Do you want cheap tickets or do you want to get there.” Aghast, I assumed something had gone astray in the translation so I shrugged off any careful analysis of her reply and expressed my desire that I did indeed wish to “get there”. Without expression the girl arranged the tickets and I left her desk with the uneasy feeling that I had briefly encountered the edge of a Russia which was deep, complex and best left to the imagination.   

Since we had met, Olga and I had made no attempts to visit the other’s place of accommodation. I suspected Russia could be a dangerous place so intentionally I erred on the side of caution and always met Olga in public places. However on the afternoon of our departure to St Petersburg I did not have a choice. Olga collected me and my belongings from the Hotel Ukraina after checkout and we drove across Moscow to her apartment directly opposite the Metro station of Botanichesky Sad. Apprehensively, I rode the elevator to her floor and moments later we were in her tiny, one-bedroomed apartment. My brief feeling of paranoia was completely unfounded. The apartment was sunny, clean, modern and besides ourselves, empty. Olga gathered her things and after locking up we were finally on our way to Sheremetyevo.   

By the time we were seated at the gate it was dark and snow had begun to fall. I sensed Olga’s anxiousness. When I queried her she divulged to me a fear of flying. Looking out through the terminal windows at our Russian made Tupolev Tu-154 sitting on the tarmac under a blanket of snow I could empathise with her fear. I felt it best to contain my terror from her. I suggested alcohol as a suitable tool to get us through the experience, so we purchased a small bottle of vodka and had its contents consumed just in time for boarding.

Once aboard the narrow body airliner we cuddled together in a mild state of numbness completely oblivious to the other passengers boarding the aircraft. We were in our own zone, our own space. It seemed like we had known each other forever. I watched men through the window working in the falling snow, which had by now turned to blizzard like conditions, spraying antifreeze chemicals onto the wings. Surly the Russians, out of all the nationalities, on the planet would know how to fly in these sorts of conditions. Surely they, of all people, would have the experience flying in this sort of weather. Surely they knew what they were doing. I tried to reassure myself as best I could, but still if we were to die we would at least die together, I thought. I hugged Olga closer to me.

The noise of the engines escalated to fever pitch and we were thrust down the runway in a flurry of snow. Slowly the wings dug into the freezing air and lifted the plane from the white earth. I squeezed Olga’s hand and I felt her tension. We both looked out into the darkness frozen with fear. The plane bounced and shuddered. The engines screamed as the plane clawed its way higher into the sky. Then as suddenly as it had begun it was over. The clouds disappeared and a glorious moon reflected off the shining, metal wings. We had made it. The sounds of the engines subsided and even the plane seemed to relax now that it had the blanket of stars above it for company. I relaxed my vice-like grip on Olga’s hand and she turned to me and smiled with nervous relief. We were on our way to St Petersburg.   
COMING UP on Phobia-Iraq-Love Trilogy Tale:

- Chapter 47: Courting in St Petersburg
- Chapter 48: Preparing for War
- Chapter 49: Evacuation
- Chapter 50: Return to Moscow

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