Monday, September 14, 2009

Spying on Russia

September 8, 2009
It’s hard to believe that I’ve just visited Russia. I guess I never thought I would go there – not after the way we were brought up thinking of Russia as the Enemy in the Cold War and all. But we had the chance to go and really didn’t know what to expect. Some things were probably not unexpected – the way very few people ever smiled or seemed cheerful, the row and rows of government block housing, the wide streets with few cars. But there were lots of surprises – we had two days of sunshine in a town that only has 68 days a year without rain, people seemed to be pretty well dressed, we didn’t see one beggar, we did see guys on the street that looked exactly like KGB agents (have we seen too many movies?!), the streets were clean and we saw foreign restaurants, including McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and KFC.
Because Russia, unlike any of the other countries we had visited, requires a visa ($250 per person) for Americans to enter their country; we opted for a guided tour, which provides a waiver for the requirement. We contracted with Red October, a tour company that was highly recommended by other cruise ship passengers, rather than take the tours offered by our ship. We were supposed to meet our guide, limo driver and four other people for the two day tour; but when we arrived, we found out the other four had cancelled. At first we were worried about the price, since it was supposed to be split six ways, but our guide, Katya, assured us that our price would not increase. Wow! We were going to have a private tour for two days with our own guide and driver. Incredible! We wound up doing a whole bunch of things that weren’t on anyone’s schedule, since we could move as fast or slowly as we wanted. We even made stops at a grocery store, picture stops, and visited an outdoor market. Fantastic!
But for us, the best part of the whole experience was going to lunch in a private apartment with our guide. When we arrived, we saw the entry door to the building and thought we were at the movie set for the movie “Borne Supremacy”. Katya rang the intercom and we went in the steel door, up five floors of concrete steps (no elevator) with exposed plumbing and wiring and arrived at another steel door that opened to another door 6 inches inside, both with several dead bolt locks.
The woman inside, our hostess, couldn’t have been more welcoming. She had prepared a table in the living room – we sat on the couch and she and Katya sat on chairs. We had a salad of red and green peppers with oil and vinegar, followed by a lovely cabbage and potato soup. To drink we were served filtered water (from a machine she was very proud of), orange juice and generous shots of vodka. Our main dish was fried chicken fillets with boiled potatoes, followed by a dessert of hot tea, cookies and chocolates. We felt honored to have had the chance to visit her home and she proudly showed us every room.
We spent two days visiting gorgeous gardens, museums and palaces. Oleg, our driver, was quiet and professional and Katya was one of the best guides we have ever had. We’ll always remember our visit to Russia with love.

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