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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: Trials of a Moscow Vacation Open Expat Eyes




Most longtime expat residents of Moscow exhibit some pride in being tough enough to cope with minus 20 degree Celcius temperatures, rude sales clerks and slushy streets.


But last month, when my Spanish friend Luis Manuel came over from London for a one-week visit, I learned what living long-term in a harsh place can do to your personality. Most of us fail to realize that we tend to take in stride, even learn to accept over the years, some pretty nasty things, without a second thought.


Luis' visit also showed how unprepared Russia is for foreign visitors of any kind. For a country that claims it wants to boost tourism, Russia does a good job of scaring visitors away - my friend's trials started long before he even arrived.


I got him an invitation in Moscow from a Western-run travel company where the agent told me Luis should then take the document to a London travel agency. Apparently Intourist is where you go if you plan to travel to Russia on a tourist visa. There he was told that his invitation was invalid as it did not give him a hotel reservation (it did) and that he would have to buy one of their hotel packages. Running out of time and patience, he agreed, after which he waited 10 days for a visa.


Finally, when all was in place, he phoned to tell me he would be arriving Sunday on a British Airways flight. The plane came in but Luis was nowhere to be seen, and I began to wonder if he had missed the flight. Three hours later, I was about to go home when a familiar figure emerged, dishevelled and tugging a couple half-open bags.


"Dios mio!" he howled as soon as he reached me. "My God. How can you possibly live here?" It was a sentence he would repeat several times in the following week.


Everyone on his flight had been channeled into the crush at the immigration counter, where several plane loads of passengers were struggling to get through at the same time. That ordeal over, he moved on to his next "experience" at customs, where officials leisurely checked every item in his bag, even turning the pages of his dictionary.


Emerging from the airport, Luis took one look at the gray, sprawling landscape and closed his eyes.


Not that every experience was terrible. Some - in hindsight - were even funny. Fighting off crowds of taxi drivers, we got into a marshrutka minibus that had a waterlogged floor. The driver banged the luggage compartment shut with a hammer and we were off.


An advertisement for tours to Spain was pasted on the window. When I pointed it out, Luis looked at it in silence for a few minutes, probably wondering why he hadn't gone to Costa Brava instead.


Not that he is a snob or a delicate plant. At Red Square and the Novodevichy monastery he was thrilled with the beauty of the churches and the golden domes, and with the old Moscow buildings. He was entranced by St. Petersburg and fell in love with pelmeni and borshch. By the end of theweek, he had clicked several rolls of film and even made friends with some of my neighbors.


But, unlike me, he wasn't prepared to be rudely shoved in the metro or hit in the shins by babushki wielding their little two-wheeled carts without so much as an apology. He couldn't elbow people back as most of us unconsciously learn to do here. He had never before been screamed at by a museum attendant and he had never in any other country been followed around by girls just because he was a foreigner.


And he was stunned by the terrible service everywhere, unlike long-term expat residents who accept bad service with a shrug as part of the great Russia experience.


Two days after Luis arrived, we went to the Izmailovo Hotel to get him his Moscow registration. "You were supposed to arrive Sunday, where were you?" shrieked the administrator, who later agreed to register him.


"Why aren't these guys fired?" Luis asked after further abrasive encounters with hotel staff as we looked around.


I had no answer to his question. Even at expensive places, the service concept is conspicuously absent, let alone at a seedy hotel like Izmailovo.


At one pub on Tverskaya Ulitsa, the city's main street, we had to wait 15 minutes for the waitress to stop kissing the barman and finally take our order. At a boutique in the GUM shopping center where Luis wanted to buy a backpack to carry his new matryoshki, the young sales clerk would barely let the item out of her hands for him to look at it; here, it seems, the customer is always assumed to be a thief.


I realized how much I take such things for granted when we went looking for beluga caviar for Luis' father. While most stores carry caviar, beluga, the most expensive kind, seemed to be in short supply. "Nyet," sales clerks would say, examining their nails. I barely noticed these incidents, but Luis was thoughtful.


"Something is terribly wrong with a place where salespeople won't even look up when a customer approaches, let alone smile at them," he said finally. I realized he was right, and that brutishness starts to rub off on you if you live here long enough, recalling the time when a Canadian friend had kicked a babushka out of a bus door after being repeatedly poked with her trolley, and how we actually laughed and cheered when she later recounted the incident.


Luis and I went into a Gzhel store a quarter-hour before closing time and found an elderly bulldog of a saleswoman already dressed to leave. "We're closed," she snapped. And then something snapped inside me. "What do you mean, closed?" I yelled. "There are 15 minutes left - why don't you just leave your job if you don't like to work?" I still find it hard to believe that I actually followed the woman across the street to the bus stop, taunting her all the way. Poor Luis was horrified - he had never seen this side of me.


But if mistrust and rudeness are a hangover from Soviet times, there is still the raw deal foreigners get in museums and transport. At the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russians pay 15 rubles while foreigners' tickets cost 250 rubles. It may not be expensive for a tourist, but the discrimination rankles, something Russians don't seem to understand.


Of course Luis, with his dark hair and kavkazskiye looks did not escape the notice of Moscow's famous policemen. "Oh, Spain," the officer in the metro said disdainfully, thumbing through the visa. He had a good look at the stamp however, just in case a Spaniard had decided to forge himself a Moscow registration.


I know a week is too short for anyone to really come to know a country, its culture and history. Luis did not have time to meet any of the wonderful Russians I know, he does not speak the language and does not know much more about the country than what the television tells him.


Hoping to improve Luis' impression of Russia, I tried to persuade him to come back during the summer so we could go to the breathtaking Baikal region.


"I am not a masochist," he said. "Russia may be beautiful, but so are many other countries where I get treated better."


Sujata Rao is a business reporter at The Moscow Times.