Finding Nemo

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Moscow: An aimless, magical stroll

The Four Seasons Fountain, symbolized by four horses, just outside Red Square
It was a glorious sunny day, a few white fluffy clouds ambling aimlessly amongst the blue. They and I were apparently of the same mind. And so I began my walk.

I had seen the sights, made peace accords with Lenin and Stalin, rubbed toppled stone Communist heads for good luck, touched a rusting Soviet space shuttle, partied my funky chicken off with lingerie-clad stewardesses, and even gotten into a scrap with one General Orlov. It had been a quite a week in Moscow.

But my favorite moment was yet to come. One of the greatest pleasures afforded a long-term backpacker is the luxury, and oh what a luxury it is, to have a foreign city beckoning with absolutely no goals or plan in mind. Paul Theroux would wax eloquently about this singular emotion in his many books. 

My friends, this is a thrill like no other, the ultimate in travel. A lightness in your step, a smile upon your face, an anticipation that no matter what comes it will be something... weird and new and wonderful. You walk and say "Oooo, does that nice little cafe have a woman playing a cello? Hmm. I have nothing better to do, so I think I will plunk my ass down there and get an espresso and listen. Why the hell not!" This idea of "Porque No?"  / "Pochemu Nyet?" (Russian)? "Porquis Pas?" (French) comes up again and again in every country around the world. You see it in graffiti, in a shrug before heading out for the night, in a bar when a round of shots appear; it is a secret handshake amongst the free spirits of the world. Life is short, every day is a precious gift. Why not indeed.

And so with Porque No? resting comfortably on my brain, I began to walk. My first stop was the world famous Bolshoi Theater, the heart and soul of ballet in all the world. Simply put, it is legend. None other than Tchaichovksy's Swan Lake premiered here in 1877. It houses by far the largest ballet company in the world with over 200 dancers. And the interior was said to be fabulous, almost palatial. I was determined to catch a Swan Lake, or Nutcracker, or at least a Sleeping Beauty at the Bolshoi. But, the backpacker curse struck yet again. It was sold out for the entire time I was in town.

The world-famous Bolshoi Theater
The backpacker curse is this: you travel for such a long time that you are freed from the constraints of a schedule. It is a very liberating feeling that is hard to even describe to those who have not experienced it. It allows you to reach a new state of mindfulness, of connection, of bliss: the elusive Traveler's Zen. But the curse is that this very lack of planning which gives you such freedom can backfire. The big attractions may be sold out or closed on the day you arrive, as had happened with all my beloved pickled Communist leaders. <sob!>

Then again, it is a small price to pay, really. After all, there was a sister theater to the Bolshoi in St Petersburg called the Mariinsky, which is arguably even more famous. I vowed that I would not miss this final chance for pretty ballerinas dancing in tigh-- er... culture. 

So instead I headed north to do a walking tour of the city per Lonely Planet. I wandered through nice cafes, bars, little cute churches, flower-filled parks, fountains, museums, and the occasional pair of high-heeled girls in tight dresses taking pictures of themselves in front of <insert landmark>. Then my phone beeped. (A veteran backpacking move is to purchase a very cheap phone, and then a new sim card in each major country you visit. It's a fantastically cheap way to stay in touch with new friends.) I picked up and found it was a one of the few girls I'd met at Pacha who wasn't completely freaked out by my attempt at a bare-ass break-dancing worm routine, And best of all, she spoke very good English.

Random acts of awesome in the streets of Moscow
She suggested we meet at a cute little cafe for dinner called Margarita. I walked in, we hugged and sat in a corner, ordering a tasty pizza and some yummy French wine. And just then, a string quartet began playing in the corner. I had low expectations, after all we were in a glorified coffee shop and they were probably street buskers by day. Instead, what I can only describe as golden drops of light and sound wafted through the air. These young music students were incredibly, delightfully, astoundingly good. After just a few phrases my hair stood up on my neck. Emotion poured out of the quartet, classical music, then pop arranged for strings, then Tchaikovsky, then swelling Vivaldi. I sat mesmerized.

This was just a just a little coffee shop with some pastry snacks and wine. A tiny mom and pop. And yet here we were getting a concert that I would have paid an easy $100 ticket back in the US: pure skill, pure magic and romance, pure serendipity, just for the two of us. A moment I would never forget. Once again, I had reached Traveler's Zen.

Can you imagine a classical string quartet in the subway in the Bronx? Me either

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