The morning sounds of the Sportivnaya station’s rush hour rained through my concentration. They were Russian sounds—no music, no chatter, no shouting. The clanging of change and murmur of voices as people bought metro cards. I missed the plastic green tokens they used to use. The escalator’s muffled rattle and rhythmic squeak. The trip-trip, trip-trip as the people on the left side of the escalator jogged down the steps. Those on the right stood silent. The trains rumbled into the station with an almost underwater echo.
The escalator rattled away beneath me. It descended through a tunnel lit by wan lights. The globe-like bulbs marched downwards, reflecting off the tops of heads as people vanished through the bottom.
The train’s doors slid open with a slippery bang. The crowd crushed back and forth as the train emptied, then filled, and tight-lipped, mostly unwashed Muscovites pushed one another to fight for just one more space on the train. This time of day, there was never enough room. But there was a train every thirty seconds. I’d catch the next one.
I straightened the sheepskin coat that my father’s wife had given me. Dark brown, with a fashionable suede look, it was my most useful piece of clothing in my efforts to appear Russian. I removed my old black fleece hat and stuffed it into my pocket. The metro was so much warmer than the knife-edge cold outside that I started sweating as I descended on the escalator. I wiggled my still-frozen toes inside my boots.
I slid into the metro car, just another tired-faced woman trying to look pretty and pulled-together. I slipped through to the back and squeezed into a space near the door separating the cars. I stood sideways and loosened my knees, ready to sway with the jerky movements of the train. With no bar within reaching distance, I was held up by the men and women pressed against me. A little of their dandruff shook onto my shoulders. The electronic female voice said, “Be careful, the doors are closing. Next stop, Verobyovi Gori.” I suppressed a shiver of happiness. That voice reached back into my memory, fifteen years of loving this place.
Every one of us probably has a foreign city we’ve learned to call home: Moscow, Berlin, Bangkok, Santiago, San Francisco, Fez. It’s a tramping ground we return to again and again, plumbing the depths of what it means to have a home away from home.
There is no tourist attraction, no museum, no scenic overlook that can give the traveler the same experience as feeling part of a place. To slip into the daily rhythm of residents and commuters—there’s nothing better.
Me, I have a love affair with the Moscow metro that some of my up-and-coming Muscovite friends deplore. My earliest Russian impressions always include the rush and tumble of the underground trains. And when I get tired of looking at its award-winning architecture and Soviet-era art, I take the train out to the home of Russian Orthodoxy in Sergiev Posod, or a bus to the sprawling former estate and toy churches of Arkhangelskoe.
Like most major cities, Moscow is packed with sights. You must see Red Square. It’s shiny and absurd and windswept and cold and unnervingly more like Disney than any place with such a bloody history has any right to be. But if you see it, I’ve learned the hard way, try to be a local. Dress to blend in. Walk confidently out of the metro station. Attach eyes to all sides of your head. Keep your camera out of sight. Why? Because you want to be on the lookout not for pickpockets, but for the police, who constantly scour the influx of photo-snapping tourists in order to charge fines (that is, bribes) for improper paperwork. Come to think of it, not so unlike pickpockets after all. In the Russia I know, theft happens out in the open. My father was once stopped pointlessly by a traffic cop, who matter-of-factly requested a bribe. When my exasperated father refused, the policeman said, waving my father’s driving license and residency documents, “Think about it this way. This is a product. How much are you willing to pay for it?”
With every step, every visit, I hook in to the internal compass that Russia has become for me. And each time I return, I try to share the wealth of that decades-long relationship. As writers, bloggers, photographers, or enthusiastic neighbors sharing vacation snaps, we try hard to impart this feeling to those around us. We want to share the beauty and complexity of the places we feel we know, and the places we feel we can never truly know.