Train to Moscow. Now departing: Track 3
The next morning I rise early and pack the last of my things after a quick shower. I go downstairs and wait for my Ubër. A black Mercedes arrives and takes me to the Tikhvin Cemetery, where Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky is buried. He is best known for Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and Notes from the Underground. Can’t come all this way and not pay my respects to such a literary legend. Additionally, I will go in search of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Russian composer of such classics as The Nutcracker & Swan Lake. But underneath all of that is my hidden intention to spread some ashes that I have brought with me of a dearly departed friend. Maybe it seems morbid to some, but I can think of no greater place to give my friend to rest. At least I’ll always know where to find him. Amongst the greats.
I walk down a long pathway with tall cement walls on either side and arrive at two different entrances to the cemetery on either side of the pathway. There is a woman standing in front of the left entrance.
Dostoevsky? I ask.
She points to a tiny kiosk with a tiny elderly woman behind the counter. I can barely see her face behind the desk.
She motions to the entrance on the right and points on a map that is printed in English as she speaks in Russian. I am to understand that I can go just into the right side for 200 rubles and find his grave here. Or I can go to both sides of the cemetery for 300 rubles. Is this lady upselling me? At the cemetery? I purchase my 200 rubles ticket and enter the right side.
The morning sunshine streams through the tall trees and dots the headstones. The map that is in English immediately poses a minor problem. The headstones are all in Cyrillic.
I count the number of headstones that match the map to find Dostoevsky. A weed trimmer hums in the background. His resting place has a small fence around it and is quite elegant. My favorite part of the headstone is the back. They definitely took 360 degrees into consideration.
Apparently there were famous sculptors consigned to do the headstones. And by the time I get down to Tchaikovsky’s you can feel the one-upmanship progressing.
Everything you could hope for in a cemetery is here complete with stillness, an ever so slight breeze so you can hear a gentle rustling in the trees and the even more slight warmth in the air that proclaims another perfectly weathered day is ahead.
There is a ginger and white cat with one ear that has clearly suffered through more than one battle who claims this side. The cat watches me approach and rolls over in the sunshine declaring his hard won victory. Every minute of battling for this patch of sunshine was worth it.
I could spend the entire day here. As I wander I look for an appropriate spot for my friend’s ashes. Eventually I find a tree that actually splits into two trees from one trunk. Maybe my friend will also become more than the single life I knew him in.
Upon leaving I notice a small river outside the cemetery. There are three older women in Babushka scarves seated on the bridge. They are sharing a snack. The scene is timeless.
Returning to the world of time, I race to the front to grab a taxi and pass an artist who has watercolor paintings depicting the same scene I just witnessed. I do regret not picking one up in my haste.
Once I return to the hotel, we load our luggage for the station. The train station to Moscow.
When we get to the station we go through a system of back alleys and parking lots with all of our luggage to find the entrance for large groups with lots of luggage. As we go through the same kind of X-ray machines that are at the airport, I see a grey and white cat in a carrier. The cat’s meows sound like the chirping of a bird.
As we walk with the hundreds of travelers also heading to Moscow, we have to stop several times to re-gather our group and ourselves. I can hear the cat’s chirps in the distance. It reminds me of the yellow bird that Irina talks about in the play at the end of the third act. How she tried to set it free and it never left its cage. I think about how happiness can be its own cage and how expectations are sometimes never met. I think of how fortunate I am and can make no sense of how it got this way.
About 2 hours into the 5 hour journey a little piece of paper is passed back to us. It is Happy Birthday in Russian. It turns out that it is our writer Richard’s birthday and the plan is to memorize this Russian version of Happy Birthday to sing to Richard. At some point. Later.
The trees and landscape and water we pass on this train remind me of home. And the train to San Diego. I find this strange and comforting.
When we disembark, we do the luggage shuffle again and are greeted by the smiling face of Eugenia. She is here from the International Chekhov Festival to get us safely from the train station to the hotel.
The first thing I notice when we get off the train is the warmth of the air. The kind of humidity that warms your bones. And then I see all of this pollen floating in the air. If it were cold it would look like snow falling from the sky, but instead it is almost like cotton in the air. Or a dandelion without a stem. Vladimir tells me that it is actually quite dangerous and to not get any in my eyes.
Eugenia is speaking on her cell phone in Russian while pointing to the chap who is there to help her to get luggage carts and she simultaneously communicates all of this to us in English.
I stand guard with the luggage and pull my scarf over my nose to protect the sore throat I’ve been nursing for two days.
Once we exit the train station and go through the gates, I see the Russian army and machine guns. Not doing anything but just standing there next to this large Russian truck that could easily scoop up a good 40 people if necessary. They look bored. I am not one to spook easily so I just assume that their intention is to make sure people know they are there.
We pile into a large Mercedes sprinter van as our luggage is loaded into another and head toward the hotel.
Moscow under first inspection is a massive, sprawling metropolis with all the first-world problems of a massive, sprawling metropolis. St. Petersburg seemed large with all its canals, but next to Moscow, it instantly feel quaint, charming and provincial. I finally see some graffiti and what appears to be a modern day propaganda poster and what looks like an abandoned building amidst gargantuan buildings. It looks like they were just added onto until the single building takes up an entire city block. But mostly, everywhere is construction and cranes.
As we head down a small street/back alleyway, we find our hotel. The Pushkin hotel. While checking in, I concoct a plan with Tina for magically making surprise birthday cake happen for Richard before they have to be at their next appointment in 37 minutes. We check in and I zip into our room to drop my luggage. The room has a skylight which we instantly open and a couple of those little pollen spheres float into our room.
I dash out of our room and grab Elizabeth and we proceed with Mission Birthday Cake. The lady at the front desk gives us very specific instructions to a grocery store that is around the corner. When we get to the corner we can see why her directions were so specific. There are hoards of people going in every direction on an incredibly busy street and construction that has torn up all of the sidewalks and changed the entrances to all the buildings. We find the coffee shop she described and the escalator down into the underground market she recommended. It is super fancy. If Dean & Deluca in New York opened a location in Russia, it would be this market.
I go in search of champagne while Elizabeth searches for dessert of the chocolate variety or apple pie. She finds both tiny rolled chocolate cakes that look like Ho-Hos and an apple pie. Score. I nab champagne and find a fancy blue and white plate with gold scrolling for a price that I don’t care to calculate from rubles into dollars because I believe it is destiny and good fortune that has brought me here, which is further confirmed when Elizabeth returns with tiny hand made paper toothpicks with little mini clown like people on them. We nab a #1 candle. High Five. Best teamwork ever.
While paying for our goods, I try to ask the cashier lady if she has a plastic knife. I pull it up on my Google translate and display it to her in Cyrillic. She has no idea what I am mean. There is a young, hip gentleman with a couple of buddies who asks me if he can help? Yes, I need a knife to cut the cake. He asks her for us. She says no. I thank him and he waves us on our way. I ask in the coffee house upstairs and they hand one to me.
We sprint back to the hotel and prepare the cake on fancy plates and run through Happy Birthday in Russian, and we all go down the hall. We knock on Tina and Richard’s door, to the very shocked surprise of Richard. Hooray! We have the fastest cake and champagne party ever before they take off to meet with the translator for our next show, which is tomorrow!
Ack! Food. We need food.
Luckily, to the delight of the rest of our group, Elizabeth and I already spied that next door to our hotel, yes right next door, is a Georgian food restaurant.
What? For real? Yes.
Our good fortune continues 50 steps from our front door. This restaurant is like a mini dream come true to Moscow welcoming committee. It has an outdoor patio and blankets for your lap and pillows and cushions and seating for all of us and an expansive menu that has delicious options for everyone. I have the pumpkin soup and salad. Pretty much every meal I am having soup and salad and couldn’t be happier.
Once we all finally order, we have a toast.
The Prozorov family in Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” never actually make it to Moscow, but we have. It’s taken us 4 years to get here.
Did we finally crack the code for happiness? Or have we discovered the real lesson about life: that maybe everything doesn’t always work out and no one ever gets what they want and that’s okay. Or maybe, just maybe, if you believe hard enough that you can and work hard enough so you will, then maybe the stars will align and give you everything you ever wanted.
Or maybe we will just enjoy what Moscow has in store for us with no expectation of anything other than the experience of it.
I guess we’ll find out tomorrow night.