For Part 1, go here.
Crimea had long been a beloved destination for my wife (pre-current troubles), and as one of our first travels together, she insisted that we go there.
Crimea sits at the bottom of Ukraine, a large, wide peninsula pushing into the Black Sea. It fascinates the foreign visitor: Part Russian, part Ukrainian, part Tatar, Muslim, Christian, Turkish, Armenian, Jewish, and still flaunting a fair amount of monuments to Lenin. Its mostly rocky shores edge the deep green waters of the sea, and its inland hills offer gentle walking and serene landscapes. Yalta’s seaside Livadia Palace owns a special spot in history as the famous last meeting site of Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt in 1945.
Crimea boasts its share of exotic as well as historical points. One is the medieval town of Bakhchysarai. Founded in the 16th century by the Tatar Khan Sahib I Giray, the city was at one time the capital of the powerful Crimean Khanate.
The town still holds its Asia Minor character, and one of Bakhchysarai’s prime attractions is the former dwelling of the Crimean Khans, the Khansarai Palace. Here, potentates and their harems once lived an Arabian Nights fantasy. It’s easy to get swept away.
Intoxicated as I was on the Oriental vapors, I rallied when my wife casually mentioned that, in the vicinity, survived a 400-year-old public restroom that was still in use. This I had to see. She led me on.
What can you say about a medieval toilet? Turns out, not much. It was old, dark, primitive, and pungent. Thus, with nothing to hold my attention there, but thinking of the archeological record, I dutifully added my stream to the ancient loam and then sought fresh air. At least it wasn’t a pay toilet.
Now, full disclosure. After a year of crowing about my connection to four centuries of Tatar and Crimean privyists, my wife broke the bad news. The restroom, she said, was not really that old. She had fibbed. Rather it was built later in the style of the first ones.
As I learned, however, that still could put it close to 100 or even more years-old. I can live with that.
Service with a shrug
It’s not just appliances and plumbing that should work but don’t. It’s some people who should work but won’t.
I think of the epically indifferent barmaid in a late-night Moscow hotel bar who, when I tried to pay with credit card, told me the credit card machine didn’t work (!). Without enough rubles, I asked if they would accept American dollars.
No, only rubles, she deadpanned and bellyached at the same time.
Well, I asked—my broken Russian rising to a sputtering Russian—isn’t there a hotel exchange or other credit card machine? No, she said, the exchange was closed, and none of the other credit card machines were working either.
Finally, seeing me breathing hard with annoyance, it dawned on her that she should lend some proactivity to this transaction. Take the stairs down two levels, she directed, and walk down a long underground corridor. There would be a Bankomat at the end, where I could get rubles with my credit card, after which I should return and pay her.
I had no choice if I wanted to pay the bar bill, and I began the trek. I suppose we could have just left, and it wouldn’t have made any difference. But I returned and paid, without expecting or receiving even a mumbled “Spacibo.”
Who’s minding the squad car?
I’m also reminded of my maiden trip to St. Petersburg. On our first morning out, my wife and I joined the crowds on Nevski Prospekt, one of the city’s main boulevards.
Tired and disheveled from a late night arrival and a bad night’s sleep, I suppose I looked the perfect unwary tourist with a camera hanging from his neck. But this was a main avenue in the middle of the morning with thousands of people streaming past. What could go wrong?
I found out at the first intersection.
We, like other pedestrians stopped at the curb to wait for the “walk” sign. The light changed and I stepped off.
Suddenly, a pack of hands grabbed and held both my arms, while I could feel other hands pulling at my camera strap and trying to dig into my pockets.
I looked down to see a swarm of about 10 or more naughty, brown faces, aged, say, 15 to 25 surrounding and pulling at me. Egads! It was one of the famous European gypsy hoards that prey upon tourists! And they were trying to make me a victim.
While I may have looked old and tired, I retain a bad attitude from youth about others putting unfriendly hands on me. And I reacted.
In a split-second rush of adrenalin, I yanked up my arms and threw the pests off, sending them flying off balance. Then without thinking, like a schoolyard fight, I started swinging and kicking wildly at those grabbing for my pockets and camera, connecting a few good ones. I noticed out of the corner of my vision that my gentle wife was also pushing at the little shites.
Of course, the last thing the gang expected or wanted was a full-on counter-attack, and they darted in all directions into the crowd, while I shouted rich American expletives after them. And because of my quick reaction, they hadn’t gotten anything. The streaming crowds meanwhile continued to stream around us, ceding us a little extra room and a few funny looks.
As I recovered from the brouhaha, which lasted, I’m guessing, less than 30 seconds and began and ended within the space of the crosswalk, I turned to an odd sight.
There, just a few feet from all the commotion, still stopped at the light in their cop car, were two of St. Petersburg’s finest, acting as if nothing unordinary had just happened in clear view and easy reach. But before I could even engage them with a Russian WTF?, the light changed and they cruised away.
Well, doragaya maya, I said to my wife, I guess we know now that in addition to everything else, militziya ne rabotayat. And, honey, that means we’re on our own.
I think this experience, especially, suggests a new language-study title: Learn Russian the Quick and Dirty Way.
Okay, I’ve had my fun here with the Russians and Ukrainians (Don’t get me started on the Moldovans!), but honesty and affections won’t allow me to leave the impression that what preceded gives anywhere near a complete picture.
Truth is, I’ve loved travelling in these countries, meeting the people and sharing their culture. And, as I’ve admitted elsewhere—and despite current politics and policies—I’ve been a not-so-crypto Russophile for most of my life.
So, to close, here are just a few of many unforgettable happy moments:
The Hermitage. Especially the day when, with an empty room and none of the babushki guards at their stations, I enjoyed, for a few minutes, an intimate, even nose-length inspection of DaVinci’s Madonna Litta. Just the master and me for a glorious five minutes. (No, I didn’t touch… although I could have.)
The Victory Day Parade in St. Petersburg. Loud and proud and magnificent.
Visiting the small town where Pushkin wrote his first poem.
Getting drunk and having my picture taken with a Lenin look-alike.
The Amber Room at Ekaterina Place. If you’ve ever wondered what it looks like inside the sun.
Being invited to join a raucous wedding party in a Moscow restaurant. So many beautiful girls and drunk, sentimental men. And so much dancing and arm-to-shoulder singing.
Turning the corner into Red Square for the first time. (Am I dreaming?)
Quiet Kiev coffee bars.
Making eye contact with the prostitutes outside the Hotel Ukraine. Oy!
The great castles of Kamanyetz Padilsky in the Carpathian foothills. No glitz. No glut of souvenir shops. Just medieval treasures built by European knights on green hills.
Meeting my wife’s family for the first time as they all lined up—aunts, uncles, cousins—in front of a Kiev apartment building to greet us with many hugs and kisses.
It works for me.