We arrived in Moscow via the overnight train from St. Petersburg. We'd arranged to have a guide meet us at the train station to help us get to the sights quickly since we only had the one day before we had to take the train back to St. Petersburg.
As we disembarked, I gazed down the platform and saw a woman at the end of the platform holding a sign. The closer we approached I saw our two last names on the sign. She looked about our age, mid-forties, but was immensely more stylish. She wore a faux leopard skin coat, over sized dark glasses. She looked glamorous in a retro Rita Moreno kind of way. Her hair was streaked with gold tints. As we approached, I held out my hand. She wore white gloves and grabbed the tips of my fingers giving them a slight shake.
My name is Natalia she said. Where is your luggage?
I told her we'd just planned to stay the one day in Moscow. I felt like a tacky tourist just wanting to get in and get out, hit the main sites, write some postcards and leave. I quickly added that we really had wanted to stay longer but couldn't find a hotel. Which was true.
She didn't seem to care either way and quickly escorted us from the train platform to the Moscow metro station where she expertly cut in line at the ticket counter and purchased our metro tokens. She dropped one token in each of our palms and then turned and forged onward, her coat flapping behind her.
She guided us through the crowded subway as a thick stream of subway-goers spilled in from the bright streets above and pushed past us, a vacant morning commute expression on their faces. Natalia walked ahead with no apparent regard for our location behind. Several times I had to quickly push past someone to make sure I stayed in contact. I felt a sudden panic each time I lost contact with Natalia reliving a childhood experience of getting lost at Disney World. When I turned to make sure Linda was still with us. I found her, head down, fiddling with her iPhone.
We reached the metro platform at last just as a train that would take us to Red Square approached and the doors opened.
Natalie put her hand out for us to stop. We will wait for the next train, she said. There are things you need to know first. You are not ready to board just yet, she said.
I appreciated her caution and found it comforting -- she'd show us the ropes, give us valuable subway tips, protect us from pickpockets and dangerous Muscovites. But then as soon as she'd said this, she jumped onto the waiting the train. We quickly followed.
I grabbed a pole inside the train and waited for her to tell us the things we needed to know. But she said nothing and stared ahead, her eyes hidden behind her dark glasses.
She was an efficient informative guide and took us directly to Red Square the way, a guide in San Francisco might head directly to Fisherman's Wharf.
Instantly I pulled out my Blackberry to take photos, holding the red rubber encased device at arm's length to capture all the magnificent history. Linda looked down at her camera checking her photos. Natalia stood apart from us and waited. I wondered, did tourists secretly annoy her with their constant picture taking?
I'll give you the standard tour, yes? she said finally.
Yes, we said. I wondered what the non-standard tour was.
She pointed out St. Basil's Cathedral, the GUM department store, the lovely Kremlin domes with their golden crosses. She gave a brief history of each. She talked about how the hill and the surrounding river gave the area a strategic advantage.
The wind blew strongly and she pulled her coat close to her. I asked if it was always windy like this. Always? she asked, cocking her head slightly in the universal sign of that's a dumb question. No, not always, she said.
She pointed out Lenin's Mausoleum and we decided to go inside.
Again she cut past several people and moved directly toward the front of the line. I wondered what Natalia said to the man in uniform as she waved for us to follow her past the waiting crowds. But the guard stopped us. We could not enter with our backpacks and cell phones.
We went to the bag check. She cut to the head of the line there too.
Inside Lenin's Mausoleum it was cool and dark. Guards stood at attention around the walls. Natalia walked quickly around the glass case that held his formaldehyde-soaked body. I turned to look where Linda was and found her groping along. Her progressive lenses hadn't adapted yet to the dim lighting inside the tomb. I laughed and stopped to wait as she walked slowly feeling the wall to guide her path.
A guard ordered instantly, No stopping!
I turned and looked up into his eyes. He had a cold, slightly bored stare. I ditched Linda to find her own way around the dead man.
As I circled the glass case, I gazed at Lenin's face. He looked fake like one of those wax figures at Fisherman's Wharf. His skin was a bluish grey color. I tried to grasp the reality of the situation. I am looking at Lenin. That's him, there in this little glass case. But it's funny how you can get used to looking at the bizarre until it feels normal.
Natalie waited outside in the bright afternoon light. Linda emerged after me, her progressive lenses slowly darkening again with the bright sunlight.
Weird, I said out loud. To think he's been in there all these years. Weird. Really Weird.
I could not stop saying weird. Natalie slid her sunglasses back over her eyes, and checked her watch.
He's very grey, she said. I don't know what they do to him.
I noticed that too, I said. He looked the color of a shoebox that's been left out on the sidewalk in the rain, I thought, but I didn't share this. I thought it might come across as disrespectful.
Natalie led us outside the gates through the Alexandria garden. She'd seemed to have exhausted her standard tour speech and commented casually on the flowers and birds.
A nightingale, she said and stopped to listen to a bird's song. Do you hear it?
I paused to listen. Sure enough a distinct birdsong stood out from the hum of voices, the distant roar of traffic. So that's a nightingale's song, I thought.
Do you smell that? she paused and leaned in toward a tree blooming with purple flowers. Lilac, she said. Isn't it wonderful? Linda and I both stopped and inhaled. It did smell good and I imagined the next time I smelled it, I'd be reminded of Moscow.
I liked that our guide knew so much about the city, the culture, its plant life. I wanted to tap her knowledge while we were on the clock and find out as much as possible.
What flower is this? I asked crouching to sniff a row of newly planted orange and blue flowers.
Well, I really wouldn't know, she said without pausing.
She talked about her dacha -- her country house -- that her grandfather had left to her and her son.
It's in terrible condition, really she said, but I go there and plant flowers. I relax. I read books. It's very peaceful. I tried to imagine Natalia in gardening clothes, dirt in her fingernails but I couldn't.
She walked us to a bridge with a view of the Kremlin. She pointed to a church to her left at the far end of the bridge. It looked fabulously old and historic.
This church, Cathedral of Christ the Savior was fully rebuilt in 2000 after Stalin destroyed it in 1931. I love this church she said. I know much about it. Shall we go?
Give me old. I want old, I thought to myself. Not, new old. Old, old. My stomach started to growl. I also wanted some good borscht, not a 21st century church. Still, we didn't have much say in the decision, as Natalie headed immediately back along the bridge toward the church. We followed.
On the way, we stopped at a public toilet. A lady with a doughy face sat at a table inside the doorway at the entrance to the stalls. Half a sandwich lay on a piece of paper towel in front of her. Linda quickly pulled out thirty rubles to pay for the two of us and Natalie. I headed inside stopping first to roll off a wad of brown toilet paper hanging from a roll on the wall.
Please to not throw papers in toilet. Put into bucket! a sign taped to the inside of the stall read.
I looked at the basket by my feet. The lady at the entrance eating the sandwich either was very efficient or people were not obeying the sign as the basket was empty. I made a mental note not to flush the toilet paper but a habit such as this is very hard to break. It becomes simply automatic -- wipe, drop, flush.
We walked toward the church. I asked Natalie about the Arbat district as I'd seen pictures in our guide book of a quaint street closed off to traffic.
It's just some kind of tourist place this, filled with restaurants, and cafes, she sniffed.
It sounded wonderful to me.
We headed to the church and entered. Sure enough it looked old , but I couldn't get past that it was a replica. Unlike Lenin who looked fake -- and whom I could have stared at for hours -- I couldn't get into this replica church.
Natalia walked slowly toward the center of the church and stared up at the high painted ceilings. Linda and I followed and looked up too. I was in Russia, replica or not, this was history, I told myself. I waited for Natalie to begin to tell us all the things she knew and loved about this church. But she said nothing. She turned and walked outside.
You pay now, she said outside on the street.
Linda quickly dug inside her money holster -- the one she wore strapped to her torso like Magnum PI, the one that was giving her a rash by her armpit -- and handed Natalia her fee.
Thank you, Goodbye, Natalie said. I turned to shake her hand but she was gone, walking up the sidewalk, heading away from us, her coat flapping in the breeze.