Why Moscow Reminds Me Of Vermont

Winter, believe it or not, is the season that reminds me why I love Moscow.

I am a person who loves cities, but who also loves to cross-country ski. No matter where I have lived in the United States, combining these two passions has been impossible. I grew up in Vermont, the state that once (but no longer, thanks to the influx of New Yorkers) had more cows than people. While the skiing is undeniably great, at a certain age (read: adolescence) I started yearning for a place that had more to offer in the way of excitement than a band concert or church supper.

So as a college student, and then aspiring yuppie, I gradually made my way south, first to Massachusetts, then to Philadelphia and Washington. These were all exciting places to live -- but the winters, after Vermont, left a lot to be desired. They were cold and dreary, and there was too little snow. You would freeze, but you could not ski. In my new urban life, the skis collected dust in the back of the closet.

Then came Moscow. The skis came back out (in fact, I bought new ones for the occasion), and I hit the park behind my apartment building.

I noticed one thing right away. As agile as I am (I'm not exactly the best Vermont has to offer, but then again I'm no "flatlander" either), I quickly discovered I was no match for your average Muscovite, who looks to have been born on skis. Skier after skier on old wooden skis whipped by me as I chugged along on my first outing on fancy fiberglass -- admittedly, I was out of shape after years as a city slicker.

But as bad off as I was, my husband, a flatlander from birth, was much worse. He told me he had been cross-country skiing before, but it turned out that meant a few glides around a baseball diamond. On the first gently sloping hill he executed a perfect face plant, right into a mound of fresh snow. Cursing wildly as he emerged with his face and hair covered with powder, he declared that this would be his last day on skis.

Luckily, he soon came to realize that winter in Moscow can get very long unless you take up some outdoor sports. Since then, he and I have grown proficient enough to take the entire family along on our outings. Sometimes we even get the dog to pull us, reindeer style.

The great thing about living in Moscow is that you are never very far from a park to ski in. Or you can just jump in the car or onto an elektrichka, and in minutes be out in the forests or the fields. After a snowfall, you can even ski to the metro or to the store.

Out at the dacha, we do it up right: stuff a picnic lunch into a backpack, pack everyone on, and then stay out in the fields as long as we can stand it. A little vodka helps to keep the warmth in, and we always eat our lunch sheltered from the wind in the cavernous ruins of an abandoned Russian Orthodox Church on the bank of the frozen Moscow river.

Even skiing back in Vermont isn't this much fun. At home, you have to have the right skis; if you don't have this year's model, you get funny looks. The wax, too, must be exactly right (waxless skis are out). Both your clothing and attitude must be aerodynamic: forget the picnic lunch, kids, dog, and vodka. And, of course, you don't have the fun of skiing through the middle of one of the biggest cities in the world.