Winter

I left the terminal walking to the plane, incredibly large, four huge turbines, a jumbo. I was expecting a telescopic bridge, but there wasn’t one, so I found myself under the belly of that huge machine. In front of me a wide red-carpet staircase that climbed into the bowels of the aircraft.

My first thought was to be entering one of those old theaters with large staircases, maybe in Paris. Many years later, I remembered that scene when I was in one of the amazing Las Vegas hotels, the same staircase, just like the one on the plane.

I wasn’t quite sure where exactly the plane was going to, days before I knew, it would be to a cold, very cold place.

My wife, who had planned the whole trip, was right in front of me, happy, talking to her two friends. After climbing the huge staircase, with the boarding pass in hand, I tried to find my seat. I was totally surprised when I realized that the seats were not marked, you could seat wherever you wanted, all the seats were the same, no business class or first class in that huge plane.

My wife distracted in conversation, sat down with her friends and I kept looking for a place for me. The few seats available were being taken quickly.

It occurred to me to give up the trip, get off the plane, get away from there, but it was too late.

I ended up sitting in a middle seat, on my right side the seat near the window, on the left side a the corridor seat. I became scared when I paid attention to the people who were traveling with me on my row.

When I arrived from work that night, tired after crossing the city, in that infernal traffic of Madrid, I was greeted by my wife bouncing with joy.

“We are going to visit Russia!”

Thinking about a “chuleta de ternera”, veal cutlet, accompanied by “tortilla española, jámon, garbanzo with chorizo”, Spanish tortilla and Spanish Jam, fried chickpeas with chorizo, a good “Ribera del Duero,” wine and other delights, foreseeing dinner, starved, without thinking, I answered.

“Whoa, cool”

“The staff of the American school in Madrid is planning a trip to Russia, and luckily there were two places available, I bought them” explained my wife and followed “Coincides with the days we were planning to go on vacation”

Over dinner we continued the conversation.

“Is this trip where?”

“It’s kind of a tour, it seems that we are going to visit three cities”

“And our son, will he go too?” Our son was about six at the time.

“No, it’s only fifteen days, Pilar will take care of him”

“Pillie Willie?” That’s what our son called Pilar. “But she’ll be working” I stated asking a question, trying to understand the plan.

“Pilar will take him to school in the morning, then pick him up in the afternoon, prepare dinner and spend the night here at home looking after him”

We had complete confidence in Pilar who worked as a telephone operator at the same company as I and who had babysat our son many times. An extraordinary person.

Without giving any further consideration, I thought everything was fine, until the day I realized that we would be visiting Russia in January, at the peak of winter exactly at the coldest time. By being a tropical person, used to warm weather, I started to worry.

I looked around the plane’s cabin. About where I was, I could see the area where the stairs I had just climbed ended. I tried to understand what would be the advantage of having stairs right in the middle of the plane, taking important space from the cargo area which is under the cabin. To this day I fail to understand the rationale.

I looked at my right side and saw that the passenger sitting at the window was not tall, huge swimmer shoulders with a serious face. I noticed that he had disproportionately large white, callous hands. Concerned, I immediately looked away and directed my attention at the passenger on my left. Same thing, short, broad shoulders, white hands of calluses, ugly face.

I thought almost saying it out loud, “I need to be friends with these guys!”

I tried to talk to them. It was hard, I tried English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, nothing. In an attempt to communicate, they smiled. Good sign, I thought. One of them pointing to his chest said “Sergei”, I understood to be his name then said my name and reached out to greet him.

Great pain!

He shook my hand in such a way that I came to hear the snap of my phalanges.

When the other, pointing to his chest said “Yuri”, afraid of having the bones of my hand crushed, I simply waved with my left hand, as saying pleasure to meet you.

To understand each other, I appealed for hand gestures, as if I were an Italian, and onomatopoeic noises.

It worked.

I understood they were Russians, sailors, fishermen. They worked on a huge vessel that fished around the world and processed the fish right there on the boat. The ship was docked in the Canary Islands and they were returning home on holiday after six months at sea without seeing the family.

When I understood that last part, I shrunk in my seat. “Six months at sea, without seeing the wives, better not to be too friendly with them, you never know” I pondered to myself.

One of them lived near Moscow and the other in Siberia. The one from Siberia, arriving in Moscow, would have to travel two more days by train to get home.

As soon as I heard these details the plane landed in Berlin, East Germany.

We got off the plane and had a long layover at the terminal, a huge mess, people everywhere, a push-push, total disorganization. Finally we continued the journey. A lot of passengers had stayed in Berlin, so I was able to sit with my wife. I held her hand, she looked at me smiling thinking I was encouraging her, the truth is that I really wanted to calm down from the panic that was taking hold of me.

At that moment we were behind the iron curtain, in the middle of the cold war. Mikhail Gorbachev had just been elected Secretary General of the Party and the country was still under the fierce communist dictatorship. To complicate matters, our group that was supposed to be Spanish was formed practically entirely by Americans, including pilots from the Torrejón air base, one of the largest air bases that the United States use in Europe. Because of the pilots, who were certainly not welcome in Russia, I thought we might have problems and it made me restless and apprehensive.

On the bus ride to the hotel in Moscow, it was clear that we were in a different place. The buildings mainly the churches were very distinct from what we were accustomed to see in Western Europe. They featured round domes, many gilded others in spiral-shaped colors. The hotel, huge, monstrous, not sure how many rooms it had, looked like a city.

Right away, to check in they asked for our passports and kept them, with the promise they would return the passports at check out. I thought it was weird, I didn’t like it, I complained, they didn’t pay any attention to me.

Arriving at our room, I went to open the curtain, and I was surprised to see on the window sill of the neighboring room, outside, which seemed to me a pig’s leg, a ham. I noticed they were using the parapet and the cold outside as a refrigerator.

We removed the clothes and other items from our luggage, fixed the room to our liking and went out for a walk. It began to darken, a layer of snow so thick that in some places it was several meters high, good that they had cleaned part of the sidewalks and it was possible to walk.

I noticed that the hotel had right in front  of it, a display that showed the temperature: minus 20 degrees Celsius, minus 5 Fahrenheit! What were we doing in that place?

Our stroll was short, we came close to the monument dedicated to the conquerors of space, an immense steel structure, which is both impressive and disappointing. It tries to show the flight of a rocket leaving earth. Most of the construction is the rocket’s trail, and the rocket itself is at the top, but very small, disproportionate to the size of the monument. I don’t know why looking at the monument came to my mind the image of a huge man with a small dick. We didn’t even stop much to visit what appeared to be a museum at the foot of the monument, it was so cold that we quickly returned to the warmth of the hotel.

The next day we started our tour, by bus. We visited the red square and everything around it. The amazing Saint Basil cathedral, saint who like St. George was born in Cappadocia, Lenin’s tomb, the Kremlin and the GUM galleries. The huge gallery building is turning 126, today is full of designer shops, high class, you can find in the gallery all the luxury products available in the most sophisticated metropolises in the world, but at the time we visited, it looked sad. Empty stores almost empty of products and when you could find something was of very low quality.

We passed the immense monument in honor of Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, the world’s first cosmonaut, that Russia took to space in 1961. Today reviewing photos of the monument, I think Gagarin looks like Tony Stark, the iron man.

In the days that followed, we visited other places, museums, and sights of Moscow of which I remember very little, after all it has been a long time. Unforgettable were the famous subway stations, which look like palaces and a museum that I liked so much that I would like to return to Russia someday just to visit it again.

The Borodino Panorama Museum.

An immense round building, actually an art gallery, which shows some paintings, however, the building was built to house a single art piece, made by the Russian painter Franz Roubaud in 1912, to celebrate the centenary of the battle of Borodino waged by the Russian imperial army against Napoleon’s army La Grand Armée. The battle between 250,000 men lasted twelve hours. In it died 40,000 Russians and 30,000 soldiers of the Grand Armée. To see the colossal work of art, measuring 115 meters wide by 15 meters high, it is necessary to climb to the top floor and position yourself in the center of the building.

Getting to the end of the stairs, magic happens! You are transported to the center of the battle, as if you were physically participating in it.

In front you see real things like a broken oxen car, a fence, pieces of a hut, a wounded soldier. Lifting your eyes you see the huge battle open field, the magic is that what is in front of you merges with the painting in the background, in perspective, as if it were one thing. Turning the body in the central area you realize that the work is in 360 degrees, then you see everything, the French soldiers on one side, the Russians on the other and the battle. Far away in the background, in one part of the painting it is possible to see Napoleon on a hill, on horseback, commanding the Great Armée.

Our group, traveling on the bus, proved to be quite cheerful with the women more interested in shopping than visits to the sights. When the bus stopped at a place where there were shops for tourists, shops that only traded in foreign currency that the common Russians could not go, I was trying to get out of my seat to the aisle of the bus. One of the women told me jokingly:

“We’re professional shoppers, please get out of the way, or we’ll run over you”

In the stores you could find all kinds of craftmanship products, at the time rare, but that today with Russia free, is easily found almost everywhere in the world. Matryoshka and Babushka dolls, those nesting wooden dolls, artistic lacquer boxes with images that tell a story, caviar, samovares, trays with typical paintings and many souvenirs that attracted the greed of our group.

Interesting of these trips is that sometimes a person who was not of the group, a Russian, entered in the bus and sat in the last row, saying nothing. He’d disembark to one of the stops and disappear. Later another showed up, same routine. Of course, the group was thinking that they belong to the infamous Russian police the KGB.

The tour guide who traveled with us spoke perfect Spanish, had a Madrid accent, and occasionally mentioned nightclubs, restaurants and fashionable places in the famous “movida”, Madri’s nightlife. I took advantage of one of the shopping stops to talk to her.

“The visits are excelent, I’m enjoying the tour and your explanations”

“Thank you”

“Are you Russian?”

“Yes”

“How long have you lived in Madrid; how long since you returned to Russia?”

Her answer surprised me.

“I’ve never left Moscow”

I came to the conclusion that the guide should also have been trained by the KGB and when I mentioned the conversation to some of the group, the pilots, one of them informed me that every morning, before leaving his room, he put an invisible seal in his luggage and that at night he found the seal broken. It was clear that we were being watched the entire time.

The plane trip to Tallinn, Estonia began with a concern. One of the members of the group, on the runway to get to the plane, was worried about two bottles of Pepsi-Cola. The Russian Pepsi-Cola bottle, the first U.S. drink to be marketed in Russia, was seen as a souvenir. He had acquired two of them, and had packed the bottles, full of the precious liquid, in the suitcase and when he saw the bag handlers transporting the bags to the aircraft, in that cold, he was afraid that the bottles would freeze, break inside the suitcase and cause a mess. Luckily, I found out later, nothing happened.

We got on the plane and to our surprise, we noticed that the back was completely full, there was not a single empty seat, while the front was completely empty, the passengers smiled at us. We took the empty seats and after we landed, we were the first to leave the plane. The passengers in the back didn’t even move, they stay put, smiling and only left the plane after we had all left.

I commented on this fact with one of our group members

“I’m finding the Russians to be very nice people”

“Why?”

I explained that they had left the front of the plane exclusively for us and that when we landed, they stayed on the plane, letting us leave first.

“Look at the plane, ” he said with a smile, then I understood.

The small aircraft had wheels on the wings and in the rear. No wheel in front of the plane, so if there were no people sitting in the back we could never sit in the front, the beak of the plane would fall to the ground. Good thing I learned that after we landed, or I am not sure I would get on that plane.

In Tallinn we visited the old town, some churches and curiously a cemetery, which, because being outdoors, we almost froze. I felt my foot freeze, my rubber-sole boot of almost 2 cm thick, couldn’t contain the cold. We visited a sports complex around the Baltic Sea and my wife remembers to this day having faced more than a meter of snow and then walking on the frozen sea! What we were doing there, once again, I couldn’t conceive.

We returned to Moscow to continue the tour and a few days later we went to St. Petersburg. The highlight of our visit to Russia.

We couldn’t see the city’s famous canals, they were completely frozen imagine, but we visited the Hermitage art museum, the second largest art museum in the world, next to it the Winter Palace, built by Tsar Peter the Great, for his daughter Elizabeth. However who enjoyed the palace and created the museum on the site, was Catherine the Great, who after a coup d’état in 1762, took over power from her husband and cousin, Peter III, reigned all of Russia for 35 years and modernized and expanded the country. Her reign is considered to this day, to be the golden age of Russia.

The architecture and interior of the Hermitage Museum alone is a work of art, the greenish-colored building features inside marble and gold rooms and stairs of unparalleled beauty. The pieces and paintings on display include paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Rembrandt, El Greco, Van Gogh, Picasso and other masters. It also features mummies and objects from ancient Egypt, Greek and Roman sculptures, and other artifacts from antiquity. To visit the museum properly it is necessary preparation and a few days of visit. Too bad I wasn’t fully prepared and missed a lot of art I should have seen.

It gave me a shiver and a tremor when we arrived at the place where the 1917 Russian revolution began, called the February revolution, but which actually occurred in March. At that time Russia was still using the Julian calendar and so the difference. This episode was the outbreak of one of the largest political events in the world, caused the resignation of Tsar Nicolas II, created a provisional government and in July of the same year the assassination of the entire imperial family. The provisional Government was in turn dismantled by Lenin in November (October by the Julian calendar) and on November 8 Lenin, through the land decree, abolished all private property in the country, transferring everything to the state. Imagining the magnitude and consequences of this simple act of a person, changing ownership of all the properties of the largest country in the world in territorial extension. I could hardly breathe, became short of air.

Not far from St. Petersburg in Tsarskoye Selo, better known as Pushkin, we visited the Catherine Palace, built by the tsarina. This incredible palace was taken over and completely destroyed by German forces in World War II during the siege of St. Petersburg. When we visited it had been rebuilt and was brand new. The team responsible for the reconstruction sought to leave the palace exactly the same as Catherine’s time and no details were overlooked. Even the curtains and carpets were recreated from small pieces of cloth that remained. The furniture and parts that the Germans took or destroyed were remade or brought back.

The result was to leave anyone blown a part. The rooms covered in gold and mirrors, red brocade staircases. Just wonderful.

I don’t really remember the trip back to Spain. My experience in Russia has left me dazzled, flabbergasted, as if I was dreaming.