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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bored with Russia? Invite a guest

The guest from home is an inevitable part of Moscow life for a foreigner. We all deal with it in our own way, like potholes and fascist hotel doormen.


Despite the exhaustion of entertaining someone in a place as difficult as Moscow, I think it's a healthy exercise. What better way to clear eyes long-jaded to the otherworldliness of Moscow than reliving it through the eyes of a helpless, hapless house guest?


I recently came off a two-week bout with a guest, an old college friend who told me he wanted to see the real Moscow. He wanted more than just St. Basil's and Zagorsk. He wanted dachas and banyas and Siberia. He got more than he bargained for. So did I.


After the usual outings at Red Square, St. Basil's, the Bolshoi and McDonald's we were off to a Russian friend's dacha. There he met a pensioner who told the usual bitter tale of hard work and promises broken. My friend ate it up.


The next morning he watched spellbound as a neighbor downed a glass of vodka like it was milk. My friend told me that if he were to leave for home the next day, the trip would be a success.


By the next day he really did want to go home. Frustrations with language (at one point a kind Muscovite had to walk him to the right platform) and a scare with a taxi driver made him positively paranoid. He woke me up in the middle of the night fretting that his visa said "commercial" when in fact he was a tourist, and what if someone found out? Worse still, he had spent hours dialing and redialing trying to call his wife and two children, whom he missed terribly. He was ready to leave.


Poor guy, for him it was already too late. We left that day for Siberia.


What he experienced there made him long for civilized Moscow, which by the end of the week had taken on such magical proportions in his mind that it was indistinguishable from Paris.


The first thing we learned upon checking into our hotel room was that we had no hot water. But we also had no cold water. "Cold" is too mild a word to describe the melted snow that (was it an illusion? ) oozed out of the tap like a slurpy at 7-Eleven. The roaches didn't mind, though. They lived contentedly in every water basin in the bathroom.


The town had three restaurants which differed only by degree of lousiness. We usually ate dinner at the hotel restaurant where we were served the only thing on the menu: cucumber and tomato salad (less the tomatoes), boiled hot dogs and rice. They serve the same meal for breakfast. I was working, so I sent my friend on an Intourist trip to Lake Baikal. My friend's guide infuriated him by stopping a dozen times along the way to visit with acquaintances.


"It's like this guy didn't understand that I was his customer", my friend fumed.


On our last day there my friend flushed our hotel room toilet and sewage backed up into the tub.


"Ah, the glamour of travel", I joked. My friend managed a smile. For him the sewage was a sign from God: It was time to go back to Moscow.


Within six hours of our touchdown at Vnukovo Airport, we were seated behind a table at the Cafe Taiga in the Aerostar Hotel, munching on fresh lobster flown in the previous day from Canada. My friend was practically giggling as the waiter tied on his lobster bib.


"It's feast or famine here", he kept saying.


What my friend took from this place (besides a carpet and a dozen matryoshka sets) only he knows.


But, for me, the experience was uplifting. I feel as though I saw Russia for the first time all over again.