It’s not exactly fun getting lost in Russia, a country whose unusual Cyrillic alphabet makes deciphering maps for the general Latin-alphabet reader a little less than intuitive and whose Wi-Fi isn’t yet as ubiquitous as it is in some European streets.
However, getting lost in Russia is actually kind of exhilarating: suddenly, the world is in upheaval, signs don’t make sense, your Google translate app won’t load, the alphabet you’d been learning all week starts to blur, the people smile a lot but feel sorry for you because you can’t tell them you’re lost, and the world splits you open and reminds you that literacy—especially the kind of “street smarts,” getting-around-town type of literacy—is a slippery thing.
I recently got lost in Russia three times: once in St. Petersburg, and twice in Moscow. To be frank, the first two times weren’t all that terrifying, partly because the first time I was sightseeing with my mom in the city and partly because the second time I was in the Moscow metro, a place that could only get me so far from my intended destination and whose passengers were surprisingly helpful when they realized I didn’t understand what the conductor was saying (stops are only announced verbally here!).
We’d been in Russia for nearly a week and a half when I got lost the third time.
Let me rephrase that: I didn’t actually get lost the third time. I’d: snuck away from our Viking cruise ship to have dinner with my friend Olga, promised to meet my mom and our fellow shipmates at the docks at 10:15 p.m. to commence our evening Moscow by Night boat cruise, and, well, missed the boat. We had spent a few too many minutes strolling along the Moscow River, catching up on our lives, loves, and travels, and we’d been lulled into that sense of security that a night whose lights never really go off will last forever. Even at 10 p.m., the clouds hung bright in the sky behind a golden sun.
We walked leisurely down to the pier, the place I’d marked with a huge X on my map so I wouldn’t forget. The first boat had already left and the second had just angled away from the pier. My watch didn’t lie: I was late. Her voice echoed in my ears: Honey, if you don’t make it to the boat tour, if you get lost in Moscow all by yourself, I am going to be so worried!
“Wait! Please wait!” I called, teetering down the cobblestone steps in my heeled sandals to a boatful of thirty of my closest shipmates looking at me as the ship’s captain slowly steered the boat around in a semi-circle to come back and pick me up. Olga hugged me one last time, one of the crew members tossed down a wooden plank to connect the pier to the boat, and I humbly scrambled on. Since there were no seats left, I plopped down on the floor, my face red with embarrassment. Did Viking always have to be so perfectly punctual?
Thirty seconds later, it occurred to me that my mom wasn’t on the boat with me. The woman who birthed me, who raised me, who worried entirely too much about me as a teenager, who still worries entirely too much about me as an adult, who was on her first international trip ever, was on the boat in front of us.
We were on it. I first tried calling her, but I realized that she probably still had her phone in airplane mode, the mode I told her to leave it on so she wouldn’t accidentally roam while abroad. I left a message. One man from our group, a solo traveler who wore designer sunglasses 99% of the time and whose shirt always had the top three buttons undone, exposing a burst of white, curly hair, handed me his phone and told me to call, text, whatever—he didn’t care what it cost. I tried sending a text, which I knew would cost me $4.99: “Mom, I’m ok! I’m on the boat behind you!” The status bar kept rolling around, and around, and around. Another passenger told me to try telling the captain, but our language barrier ended up with me flailing my arms and repeating the word mom and he looking at me like I’d completely lost my mind.
Then, it hit me: Micha! Our guide, Micha, the man who belonged to the voice who was speaking into my headphones at this very moment, regaling us with incredible stories about all the gorgeous uplit buildings of the Kremlin on our lefts and rights. I ambled down to the bottom deck and motioned toward his microphone. He looked at me with an annoyance I know all too well—that of a student coming up to interrupt you right before you start teaching, or of one who keeps raising his or her hand to ask a question while you’re lecturing—mumbled to his audience that he’d be right back, and peeled off his own headset.
A few minutes and a few persistent phone calls and two-way radio calls later, Micha came back upstairs and told me that he finally got someone to answer—and that my mom was going to be O.K.
Later, I would ask Kathrin, our ship’s Program Director, about the Viking protocol for people who get lost. She would laugh gracefully, and tell me that they’ve got a contingency plan for everything: they always have an extra staff member on excursions who can stay behind if someone neglects to come back at the appointed time. “People are rarely actually lost,” she would say, grinning in her pleasant, German way, “they just get swept up by the beauty of Russia, and time leaves them.”
I would think about Kathrin’s matter-of-fact statement for the rest of our days in Moscow, as we let ourselves tread lightly on the streets of a magnificent European city. Time leaves them. Three words that seem, now, to encapsulate Moscow’s nights, lit up so brilliantly against a sky whose summer sun never truly sets. For the time being, though, I put my headphones back on, took out my camera, and let myself get lulled back into those hauntingly ephemeral, still as bright as an afternoon’s day, white as light, Moscow nights, knowing my mom was sailing happily ahead in front of me.
The Waterways of the Tsars cruise runs from St. Petersburg to Moscow (and vice versa). If you’re interested, you can read the detailed itinerary online or see my previous post on my blog about our voyage. As they say in Russian, Rossiya zhdet!
Article and photographs by Kristin Winet.
A special thanks to Viking River Cruises for hosting me in Russia and to the team on the Viking Truvor ship for making sure that this girl who got “lost in Russia” didn’t stay lost for too long!