Moscow Blues: When 'Out' Is The Place to Be

If you ever want to convince yourself that Moscow is really the prison you think it is, just listen to the way expatriates talk. "When was the last time you were out?" they ask one another, as if discussing an escape from behind bars.

"Out." The word has come to indicate not only a direction, but a way of life. There are people in this city who live for their "outs," those weekends of blissful escape from Moscow's mud, thick air and relentless bureaucracy.

Many expats actually define their status partly by the number of free "outs" they get in their company package. They pore over glossy travel brochures weeks in advance and book rooms in the most expensive hotels in Paris, London and Rome. Why not? They deserve it. They live in Moscow.

The "out" is no ordinary vacation. You pamper yourself. You do things that other tourists would scoff at. You find yourself in historic cities like Rome, ignoring the Vatican and the Spanish Steps for the jacuzzi and cable TV instead.

On the way "out" of Moscow, you get wildly drunk on the plane. Then you treat yourself to a whole stockpile of expensive watches and scarves from the duty-free cart.

When you arrive, you spend your first day of freedom from Moscow doing untouristy things like getting your hair cut. You shop like a fiend -- and for strange things. I still remember my husband suddenly deciding he had to buy a garden hose a few years ago as we strolled down the Champs d'Elys?es. We had to be the only American tourists in Paris looking for a hardware store.

More recently, we scoured downtown Stockholm for duct tape. Then, of course, there was an otherwise idyllic weekend in Geneva wasted on hunting down an answering machine.

A peculiar feature of the "out" is that you often ignore the cultural and historical significance of the city you are visiting. Beauty and the ages are right there before you on the streets, but somehow you are too exhausted -- and too busy looking for wrenches and garden hoses -- to soak it all in.

I just know that someday when I am settled back in small-town America, I am going to wonder how I could ever have been so stupid as to spend more time at the Hypermarch? than at Sacr? Coeur.

Before you go thinking I am completely lazy, let me tell you that I am actually the kind of tourist who has to visit everything in the guide book. But sometimes you just can't get out. Because you are under so much stress in Moscow, you get sick on your "out" -- relax and those germs catch up with you. So just as you were about to check out the Vatican, you find yourself bedridden with the flu, with only the in-house movies that you have already watched to comfort you. I have memorized many a room-service menu on such "outs."

Now I must let you know that this is my last column on this page. My muse and I are moving over to page 9, where I will resume writing "The Word's Worth," the weekly column about the Russian language. It was, after all, my love for the language that brought me to Moscow in the first place, so I jumped at the chance to go back to writing about it.

Having told you about the reasons for getting out of Moscow, I guess I'd really rather tell you why it's worth staying. See you on page 9.