“Uvezhaemyi letyayushii, vy seichas mozhetye ispol’zobat’ vashi MP3 players, babblebabblebabble zzzzzzzz.”
I didn’t even make it off the runway before my head lolled to the side and drool started the long journey down my cheek to my chest. Below me half of Russia past by – snow covered fields, frozen rivers, the towering Urals. I jerked awake when we landed in Moscow, and passively moved down the corridors and escalators and moving sidewalks, carried by the collective movement of the crowd. While waiting for my baggage to plop onto the conveyor, I dozed; while training back to the city center, I cat napped; even the screeching and hissing of the Metro didn’t faze the determination of my sleep.
The tricky part of this journey was the seven-minute walk from the Metro station to my friends’ apartment, a walk made treacherous and terrifying by the icy roads and falling ice stalactites. I was further hindered by my heavy duffle, traction-less boots, and my ridiculous sleeping bag coat that is becoming less and less needed as the weather heats up (today was only -9C!). I eventually slipped and slid my way to their building, and enjoyed a lazy morning with Emily, who played master chef, doting hostess, and shower enabler. We watched with distanced interest as the plumber came, fixed the washing machine, and went; we talked about literature in that, “Why yes, I am an English major” way; we waited for Thaddeus to wake up and Bryan to arrive. Once we were all assembled, we made a master plan: go to one of Moscow’s many fabulous museums and see a special exhibit on Picasso and Russia’s impact on his art. Let’s face it: everyone’s life ever has been impacted by Russia.
Because the weather was nothing short of glorious, we decided the walk across the city to the museum. Along the way, we stopped for lunch at The Blue Bus, a tiny restaurant inside a bus where they play videos of live folk concerts and apparently have open mic nights every now and then. It’s the closest thing to a diner I’ve seen since leaving America. Emily and I shared a bus seat and whispered secrets about Bryan and then played MASH and steamed up the windows so we could write our names … wait, that was elementary school. We sat like grownups and enjoyed a fine meal of potato dumplings and tea before venturing along the boulevard to the sophisticated museum.
Except that EVERYONE ELSE in the city also wanted to see how Picasso was influenced by the Russians, which meant that the line for the exhibit flowed out the doors, down the block and around the corner. Luckily for us, the lesser known – but no less brilliant – Roerich museum was in the same area. As in, down a dark alley shrouded in a cloud of mysticism and cultish theology. Statues dedicated to the protector of culture and peace stared down upon us as we entered. Babushkas used their perverted logic that American students studying in Russia are still not Russians and should therefore pay the full foreigner price. A stern doorman told us not to touch anything. I wanted to cry a little from fear and confusion, but we plunged forward (more like walked up the stairs) and into the realm of Roerich.
As much as I kid, I actually really love his art and the essence of his message. He spent his life traveling around the world learning about different religions and cultures. His paintings capture scenes from all over Russia, Eastern Europe, and India while managing to incorporate iconic symbols and concepts of different religions. I wouldn’t even say that he was a religious painter – he painted spirituality and the exploration of divinity.
Roerich achieved his real claim to fame during the First World War, when he encouraged all countries to agree to preserve and protect all cultures and cultural icons. These icons not only include art, buildings, and monuments, but public centers like universities, libraries, hospitals, concert halls, and theaters. By signing the Roerich Pact, countries agree to safeguard these centers of culture and promote peace. There was an entire room of the museum dedicated to the many places the flag of the clan of Roerich has traveled; this includes into space on Mir, the Russian space station. Though it felt a bit cultish at times, I can appreciate the basic point that every people has a culture, and that culture has every right to exist and be respected by other cultures. Plus, I love his use of color.
After the museum, we walked back to Emily’s, grabbing some delicious profiteroles at the Japanese chain, Beard Papa, on the way. Who knew that green tea flavored cream filling with chocolate frosting could be so delicious? At Emily’s we enjoyed story time with Zadie Smith and naptime. But like all good things, this day had to come to an end: Emily and Thaddeus were off to a concert, and Bryan and I grabbed Ben, the new British roommate, before trekking off to track down a vegetarian Indian/New Age restaurant that Emily’s friend’s friend said was good. In my opinion, the food was good, but then again I ate my entire plate in 2 minutes flat after waiting 58 minutes for it. I did enjoy the way the creepy DJ was totally into his synthesizer and panpipe, and my ginger lassi was delicious.
As usual, I was late for my train. Bryan and Ben were wonderful sports about it, running along the platforms and up and down the escalators with me, even carrying my bag at some points. Like the true space cadet that I am, I had completely forgotten that I was supposed to meet my student’s sister to pick up her passport and transport it back to Belgorod. The poor girl had tried calling and texting, but I had been too transfixed by the DJ and his rattail to check my phone. Luckily, she was waiting at the door to my wagon and sort of side tackled me as I was getting on, shoving the passport into my purse while giving me a hug to bring back to her sister. I plopped down into my seat and the train began moving. I looked around – no old men, no visible beer bottles. I had the best night’s sleep I’ve had in weeks, and spent the next few days marveling at the warm weather (only -20C!!).
* I forgot to label the pictures!
1. Mother of Peace/Society, 1924
2. Tibet, Himalayas, 1933
3. And We Do Not Fear, 1922
4. Kanchenjunga, 1936
5. Pax Cultura (Banner of Peace), 1931