Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Life lessons (learned while out and about in Moscow today)

On the surface, today might not seem to have been very successful for me. That is, the goal I woke up with in the morning (find a bookstore that sells English-language books)* was not achieved. But I realized that today actually taught me a few really important lessons, things that I might have already known in theory but definitely not in practice. So here goes:

Don't be too proud or too shy.

I thought I had come prepared for everything when I set off for Moscow this morning. I had googled my destination, drawn a map, tucked my Moscow guidebook in my purse, AND I was even wearing my glasses!! (That "AND" is for you, Mum and Dad!) I still managed to get lost though...arghh!! When I got off at Mayakovskaya and stepped out onto Triumfalnaya Ploschad' (Triumph Square), all I could see was the crazy Moscow traffic, huge billboards, statues, and people and pigeons everywhere. Naturally, there were no street signs. I think normally I would have tried to figure it out on my own, but today I was on a bit of a time crunch so I sucked up my shyness and asked these two women how to get to Sadovaya Triumfalnaya, the street I needed. Of course, there was a bit of confusion because I was stressing the wrong syllable (embarassing!! That's where the pride part comes in) but in the end they ended up pointing me in the right direction. And they were so sweet! Later on, I wandered into an area forbidden to pedestrians, and was stopped by this guard yelling "Devushka!" at me. My initial impulse was to scurry away in humiliation and confusion, but instead I turned on my most charming smile and asked him for help. And again, just like the two women, he showed me what way I needed to go. He also grinned at me and told me I was "ochen krasivaya" - very beautiful! :) Just goes to show you what a smile can do to improve your appearance when you're living in a city populated by tall, leggy Maria Sharapova-look-alikes!

So, thanks to the directions of these kindly strangers, I found the address I needed: 6 Vorotnikovsky Pereulok, a little sidestreet in the Tverskaya area of Moscow. But instead of the nice, cosy looking English bookstore I had expected, all I saw was a sign for a hair salon. I wandered around for a while, probably looking very suspicious (or just lost) until I got frustrated and decided to just stomp home. Then I had a change of heart (again with the sucking up of the pride) and marched inside the salon and asked if they knew where the English bookstore was. The security guard spoke a bit of broken English, and between his English and my Russian, I gathered that the store had switched locations three years ago. Blin! (a mild swear word, like "crap! in English) Google maps, I am disappointed in your faulty directions!! Anyways, he drew a map for me showing me how to get to their new location. If I hadn't worked up the courage and humility to ask, I would have never known!

Have goals, but be flexible.

That is, don't beat yourself up about it if your goals aren't achieved by the date you had set, or if they take a more circuitous route on the road to completion. This morning, I was so excited to finally have the chance to be surrounded by English books, but after the security guard told me about the new address, I realized I just didn't have enough time to get over to that area of the city (I had to teach a class back in Mytishi at 17:15). So, what to do? Well, I was in the middle of Moscow with about an hour to kill before I had to head back to Mytishi, so I decided to just enjoy an afternoon in the city. I window-shopped along Tverskaya Ulitsa, which is Moscow's premier shopping street, and popped into a makeup store called Etoile (star in French, how could I resist my last name?) and United Colours of Benetton, where I drooled over...well, everything. It actually ended up being a great afternoon!

Tverskaya Ulitsa then...

and now.

Enjoy the little things.

I had been prepared to spend money today when I was anticipating English literary nirvana, but upon my hopes being dashed I figured it was probably better this way. The old Katie might have consoled herself by buying something - anything - you know, in one of those horrible consumerist moods where you just feel the urge to buy. But I didn't spend any money today (besides on metro and bus passes) and it felt really good. It also gave me the opportunity to enjoy the little things, like the free shots of hot chocolate Starbucks was handing out on the street :)

Sometimes its more about the journey, not the destination.

Ok, I realize this sounds like a fortune cookie. But on my way back into Mytishi, I didn't have anything to do but just sit and enjoy the bus ride. Normally I bring something to read, or I have Rhea to chat with or, worse case scenario, I sit there and seethe over Moscow traffic. But today I had no books to read, I was alone, and the traffic...well, it finally hit me that its out of my control (let's just say that the Winnie the Pooh nightshirt I had as a kid that said "Type Bee Personality" on it doesn't exactly describe my personality) and all I could do was sit back and enjoy the ride. So I did. And I noticed things I probably wouldn't have noticed if my nose had been in a book or I was mentally cursing crazy drivers. Like, I noticed this pouty little girl, stuffed into a marshmallow-esque snowsuit, sobbing her heart out over what I could only assume were her life's injustices. Her mother was sitting beside her with this classic, motherly exasperated look on her face. I also noticed that whenever we passed a church, a few people on the bus would cross themselves in a very solemn, respectful, and reverant way. It was very moving. What surprised me was that it wasn't only the older babushkas who were making the sign of the Cross, but younger people too - men and women my age. There is something about quiet faith that I find so beautiful. I remember at my great-grandmother's funeral, a woman who was the epitome of grace and style and whom everyone loved very much, I saw out of the corner of my eye my other great-grandmother approaching the coffin to pay her respects. I don't think anyone else was watching except for me, and what I saw was an image that has remained in my memory for its absolute beauty. She paused at the coffin, this tiny, stooped-over little woman, and very slowly and reverently crossed herself. The phrase "sic transit gloria mundi" - thus passes the glory of the world - came into my mind at the time. It just seemed to sum up everything about life and death and faith and beauty and love to me. Seeing these people on the bus make that same Sign brought back my memories of my two great-grandmothers, and gave me some time to reflect on them, something that would never have happened if I had been more transfixed with my destination.

And finally...don't sweat the small stuff.

Most of us have probably either read the book by this same title or heard of it, but it really sums up just how important the right attitude is. So I didn't make it to the English bookstore today - who cares? I explored a new part of Moscow; I got over my shyness and pride and asked for directions; I got to practice my Russian; I got to meet some very kind and helpful strangers (oh! I almost forgot - I met a man from Holland who spoke English and together we helped each other figure out the right metro station to get off at...it was really fun talking to him!)...and most importantly, I got some quiet time on the bus heading home to think about my amazing great-grandmothers and how much I love and miss them. Big Nanny, I learned to love my curly hair because you always fussed over how much you loved it and wanted to know what products I used so you could get your hair to look the same. You remain the epitome of style to me and you are missed so, so much by so many people. Nanny Ivadel, I wish I could visit you right now in Cambridge and give you a hug, but I will ask my mum to give you one for me next time she visits you. I love you and miss you!

I hope these life lessons I learned - and lived - today don't come across as preachy. I am definitely guilty of not always being the most "go with the flow" person, but over the years I've been learning to let go of control sometimes, and especially here in a foreign city that is more true than ever. Life is too short!!

* This goal was put in place so that I can finally stop scrounging around my flat for ANYTHING in my native language to read...and by anything, I really do mean that. I read a book on the history of tractors in Ukraine.


  1. So nice Katie. Brought a tear to my eye. Nanny Jackson would have LOVED reading your Blog.I will give Nanny Ivadell a hug for you.

  2. There's a big Globus book store at Lubianka that has a whole floor of English books, as well as a big book store on Novei Arbat with a huge English section. Also, great post. You have a real talent for writing and, more importantly in my opinion, exceptional spelling and grammar.

  3. Cool post; I've definitely had exactly the same experience trying to find that very same bookstore. In my opinion, however, Bukva next to the Park Kultry Metro is the best place to buy English language books. If you go left out of the doors along the main road there (I forgot the name) about 150 meters, its right there.

  4. If that was the same history of tractors in Ukraine that I read there, I feel for you.

  5. Thanks Nate and TE Wonder! I went to Biblio Globus; next time I'll check out the one next to park Kultury! And SP Genius, there better only be one book out there on Ukrainian tractors. One was MORE than enough! :)

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