You could fill a book with the funny translations found around Moscow.
Day 22. Moscow is such a huge city and there's so little hope of exploring a significant portion of it on a single trip. And essentially only having one day makes any attempt border on the absurd. So the best I could hope for was to get a small taste of Moscow in the very brief time I had. After all, I'm still discovering things about New York after spending a lifetime there. And this place seems almost infinite in its size and the chaotic layout of its streets.
The plan today was to record this week's "Off The Wall" and get it uploaded since net connectivity would be impossible once we got on the train. It would also be fun to wander around the streets of Moscow while doing a radio show. I really wanted to use the clip-on microphone I had to avoid attracting attention. But after running some tests, I heard horrendous static indicative of a loose connection somewhere so I decided to once again use the big microphone. You know, the one that got us kicked out of the London Underground.
Naturally I wanted to add the sounds of the metro to the show so it would be tricky at best if the authorities were anywhere near as paranoid as those in London. I got Hanneke and Sasja to be around and we made plans to meet Ilya right in the middle of Red Square. It was a perfect plan.
The little challenges that I face every day are actually rather enjoyable. Whether it's figuring out a metro system, finding a place to change money, tracking down decent food, looking for a post office, or something bigger like recording, editing, and uploading a radio show, there's very little time for aimless wandering. And between all of the projects I'm involved in, there doesn't seem to be a moment where I'm not working on something or planning how to do so. These weekly recordings have definitely proven to be a test, one which is bound to get more difficult before it gets easier. So far nothing has come close to equaling the problems I faced on the Queen Mary 2. But somehow I doubt that's as hard as it's going to get.
We took the metro to within one stop of Red Square and got out to set things up. The idea was to travel a single stop since any more probably would have been a real burden to the listeners. (Like I've said, these trains are loud!) And I had to be extra careful with the huge microphone I was carrying as previous experience had shown it to be a magnet for all sorts of authority types.
We made it all the way into the metro entrance, down two long escalators each with its own little guard in a glass booth, onto the train, over to the stop we wanted, and then back out again without a hitch. Of course we got a little lost for a few minutes and had to search for Red Square which must be like searching for the Empire State building in New York City. We quickly tracked it down but the damn square was closed! This made it rather difficult to meet Ilya in the middle of it and we sent some text messages back and forth so we could meet up somewhere else. We even stopped the show so that Ilya wouldn't miss getting on the air for the last 10-15 minutes or so. And just as we were doing that, Red Square was magically reopened. What timing!
We found Ilya and restarted the show so he could tell the world about the hacker scene in Moscow. And we got all the way to the outro where Ilya was introducing a Russian song he wanted to play. All of a sudden and without any sort of warning, this strange guy with sunglasses and a weird patterned shirt was standing directly in front of me looking menacing and not saying a word. I saw that at his side was a member of the police who looked to be about 14. It wasn't immediately clear what exactly he wanted but it was pretty obvious he wasn't pleased. I guessed that he wanted me to stop recording so I made a show of unplugging the microphone. But I still didn't know what was going on. And he gave no indication that he was going anywhere. I didn't know if we were being detained, were going to have our equipment confiscated, or would have to do something else to satisfy this guy. Strangely though, I didn't feel afraid. The guy was obviously FSB (basically a new name for the KGB) and he was clearly good at it (he knew not to say a word while a microphone was in sight yet was able to get me to do what he wanted solely through his demeanor), but because we were right there in the middle of Red Square and I was with my friends, I didn't get the sensation that I was in imminent danger.
So once it was clear that there was no more recording going on and that we had at least one Russian speaker in our midst, an actual conversation took place. Ilya later told us the guy said we needed special permission to record in the square but he wouldn't tell us what we needed to do in order to get that permission. Since there were no threatening moves or mannerisms towards us, we tried as best we could to apologize and headed slowly away. We weren't followed, at least not obviously. After regrouping a short distance away, we finished the show.
I really need to get a tiny microphone so that this doesn't keep happening. I still don't get what the fuss is all about - people were using camcorders all around us and those obviously are recording sound as well. And what's so terrible about recording sound in the middle of a huge open square? I'm glad we got to the very end of the program before being told to stop so I believe it was a success. And now I can add Red Square to the list of places where I've been hassled.
After piecing the bits of the show together and making a final version, I headed over to Ilya's to catch up on mail, upload the show, and hang out with some cool Russian types in his flat. We basically traded bits of knowledge from our respective cultures - everything from Abbie Hoffman to Jim Morrison and hacker books and articles from Russia and America. There was a keen interest in the "underground movement" in the States - you know, the one that dated back to the 60s. Sadly, I feel that the Russians are more in touch with that period of our history than we are.
I knew it was going to be a late night because the Internet was involved. So by the time I got out of there it was three in the morning. Ilya and I walked back towards the now closed metro stop in search of a taxi. It was pretty far too as we had taken a tram ride from the metro before and now that was also shut down. Moscow really needs to have a 24 hour transit system so people can get around easily at all hours. Why is this always such an issue in every city but New York?
It was an odd walk. There were occasional people who would pass by on the almost silent road and then suddenly a loud car would race by. But what was especially strange was passing a little streetside stand with beer bottles and cans piled high in the window and seeing a solitary clerk sitting behind the glass. A flower stand across the street was also lit up and open, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. These can exist in the darkness of the Moscow suburbs at three in the morning but not mass transit? What exactly are the priorities here?
Along the entire walk to the metro station, and hence the bigger street, we didn't see a single cab. However, as Ilya pointed out, any car in Moscow is also a cab. It's true. If you stick out your hand a car driven by a private person will immediately stop and begin negotiating a price to take you where you want to go. It's a way anyone can quickly raise a little money. But I didn't feel comfortable just getting into a car with a complete stranger even though that's basically what I would be doing if I got into a taxi. The little official marking somehow made it seem safe and secure.
After reaching the station, it didn't take long to spot a cab approaching across the immense intersection that only had a single traffic light. We hailed it and instantly a private car made a u-turn and tried to grab us first. We insisted on the cab which was still sitting at a red light with five other lanes of oncoming traffic. I wondered how many of those cars would try to get to us first. At least one did and there was almost a collision. Standard practice, I suppose.
So I got a ride back to my hotel which took about 20 minutes. The whole time the driver was trying his best to keep his car from stalling by racing the engine every time he had to stop at a light, which there were surprisingly few of. He lit up a cigarette and sped through the streets silently. Maybe cab rides in New York were like this once. I sure don't remember a period like that however.
And so ended a full day's activity in Moscow. And with that I've reached another milestone. Moscow is as far as I've ever gotten in the past before turning around and heading back home. Tomorrow that all changes. When I begin to head east on the train in the afternoon, every inch of territory I cover will be in a part of the world I've never traveled to before. From Moscow until my freighter docks in California in late September, this will all be virgin territory. The real adventure is about to begin.