Day of the Platypus

Dec. 20 – Moscow

Travelers have passenger days and non-passenger days. As a passenger, you’re on a train or some other conveyance. Your ticket is paid, you have a seat, you settle in to read a book, doze or look out your window. For the next several hours, someone else does the driving. On non-passenger days, you have a place to stay, a map, and a place to explore.

But there are also some travel days that don’t fit either description. Neither fish nor fowl, they are transitional periods where you no longer have a home base, but are not yet on the move. Today is one of those days for me.

My train only departs this evening, leaving an entire day open. But rather than catching another of Moscow’s many sights, I’ve been doing travel administration. I finally went to collect that migration document, whose processing went to the wire. Five thousand Rubles lighter (about $160, ouch) I should be able to leave Russia. I also went to the train station to get my train ticket. This straightforward process was delayed by a long bumbling search for the ticket counter, and a ticket system outage.

Since I’ve been staying at a friend’s home and said friend is now away for the Holidays, I’ve been doing a bit of departure tidying. Mainly, this means eating everything perishable in his fridge, but leaving a fresh bottle of Pepsi and pasta sauce for his return. I’ve repacked my luggage, and am planning to leave early for the train station. Having seen Moscow’s Metro at peak hours, I know it will be a difficult squeeze even though I’m traveling light.

But the biggest difference on a Platypus day is that your mind is elsewhere. I’m physically in Moscow, but I’m thinking of the next part of my journey. I’ve been in Russia for two weeks, which has allowed me to get somewhat used to things. Ahead, for the next month or so, lie many languages, currencies and borders. I will be among strangers in some places, and with friends in others. Border guards permitting, I will report from a new country tomorrow.


White Night on Red Square

Dec. 19 – Moscow

When I think of snowy evenings, I think of silence. The thickening blanket of snow dampens all sound. People stay home, the streets are quiet, cars parked. A walk on a wintry night is perfect for contemplation.

I set out towards Red Square, thinking it would be a great “thinking” walk. But the buzz of traffic, wheels skidding on white roads, was all around central Moscow. I got to the embankment of the Moskva and there was a loud crushing thud, then a stuck horn. Two cars, crumple zones obliterated, slewed across the road. The drivers got out, one of them shaking an injured wrist. Sirens. An ambulance approaches, slows as it passes the wrecks, then accelerates towards its destination. More sirens, and a convoy of VIP vehicles thread their way through in the opposite direction. I walk away, the drivers huddled at the corner, both talking to their mobile phones.

I cross the Moskva on a bridge lit in the colours of Russia – white, blue and red. There are no lights on St. Basil’s Cathedral or the Kremlin, but enough brightness for their silhouettes to loom clear. Stairs, a slushy underpass, stairs again, up a snowy sidewalk alongside the famous onion domes, then onto Red Square. Blizzards may repel other people, but they attract Russians, who trample the snow on the square. Parents push prams, couples hold hands, friends take turns posing for camera phones, with a large Christmas tree as backdrop.

Unlike its neighbours on the square, the giant GUM department store’s façade is lit. In front of it, equally vast, is a skating surface. Russian jazz tunes ring out over the skaters, who mill and swirl around the rink. Church bells peal, announcements boom over the public address system, skaters shout and laugh. Opposite, Lenin lies alone and ignored in his mausoleum.

A growling squadron of trucks sweeps the square in echelon formation. They go fast, shovel blades plowing aside heaps of snow in vast circles. Pedestrians walk quickly to get out of the way. The foot soldiers of the snow removal brigade stand in clusters, leaning on their wooden shovels, waiting for the next accumulation. I head for home, into the wind, snow stinging my eyes, bells still tolling