With the new year comes the threat of another birthday, and this year it just so happens to be a milestone birthday, and one I promised myself to mark in style and with something I'd put off for a while. Although it's seemed far off for some time, I just realized the one trip I'd been promising myself to mark the occasion has risen to the top of the agenda. This trip is to Russia and I've taken the week between Christmas and New Year's to jump start the trip planning because I don't think this is one of those "get up and just go" types of trips.
I've long been fascinated with Russia. My earliest memories of it just so happen to have occurred in the same year. Way back when, my fifth grade teacher used to warn us of the impending doom that the Russians were surely to bring upon the USA. Now, I'm sure in that day and age, it seemed possible, although maybe he was just a bit of a war-monger or maybe just shit-stirrer. But damn, you don't say those sorts of things to impressionable 10 year olds! I can actually remember asking my grandfather if what my teacher said was true, and was relieved that Gramp didn't think the Russians were going to wipe us off the map. I knew that Gramp knew better than any half-baked elementary school teacher, for sure. Also in that same year, the US Olympic hockey team wiped up Lake Placid with the Russian team and it's probably one of the earliest news-worthy memories I have. That whole US vs. Russia mentality, the busting of the evil empire, all that big baddie versus little old goodies like these baby faced hockey players from our very own hometowns. It was bigger and better in our minds than Luke vs. Darth. It was one for the history books for sure, but it sparked an interest in Russia for me that never really subsided.
I was riveted to the news of the break-up for the USSR into the nation states in the late 80s and 90s and how they continue to morph over time. And as a competitive figure skating aficionado, I fully appreciate that the Russians are, and always have been, and probably will forever be, better skaters than just about everybody. Doe-eyed Canadians included (man, I have NOT recovered from that Olympic "scandal"!)
So here I sit with a few different options in hand, a guidebook on Moscow and St. Petersburg and a hand-penned list of must-sees. Deciding how to do it is the issue. I can either go on a fully guided (sigh...probably with 15 geriatrics), partially guided (with some free-time to myself) or totally on my own.
Here's what I'm thinking. Totally on my own is out of the equation. Ordinarily I go anywhere on my own without a second thought. In Russia though, the tourist infrastructure is not as well-developed as everywhere else I've been. From what I have read so far, it is difficult, if not impossible to get into some of the places I want to see without a local guide. There is also the mental hurdle of being in a country where, not only do I not speak the language, I can't even read the alphabet. I'm blessed to read and speak three languages other than English. Russian is not one of them. At least in the Czech Republic I could read the letters and pretend that a Spanish/French transliteration of what the word looked like would do. And sometimes that worked perfectly. I could of course, and probably will, attempt to learn both the alphabet and at least a basic knowledge of Russian before I go. But for now it's a mental hurdle I'm struggling with. One that could land me on a Moscow Metro ride to no where...like Charlie on the MTA.
But part of why I travel is to learn about the culture and immerse myself in the surroundings. Schlepping on and off a bus and in and out of sights with a group of English speaking Americans doesn't really do it for me in that regard. I'd want to cut loose and spend some time seeing things that maybe the group doesn't and seeing how I'd do there on my own. So the allure of a partially guided trip is calling to me.
And still, at the back of my mind there is that elementary school teacher's voice warning me that I could go missing for some perceived infraction and end up in a gulag in Siberia forever more. So for that reason alone, no matter how unrealistic it is, I'd kind of like someone on the ground there to at least know where I am and where I'm supposed to be some of the time.
This trip won't be cheap, but it's meant to be a trip of a lifetime. I'll probably not do many/any other big trips this year and just save up for the September/October timeframe. But in the meantime it gives me something to ruminate on during the cold winter months and gives me a reason to go to work (if for no other reason that to accrue vacation time!) So for now I'll keep reading and talking to tour providers. I have some time to decide and plenty to keep me busy thinking. I just can't believe it's here!
S Novym Godom!