Trip Report: Part 4: The Moscow Metro and Russian Food Markets

It’s my last day in Moscow and I’m very happy for the thermals we bought at one of the Moscow markets. The temperature is about -15° C (+6° F) and it’s snowing horizontally. The apartment I rented, from an American everyone knows as Moscow Rick, is about 2 blocks from the Garden Ring Road, the massive 10- or 12-lane highway that circles Moscow. The area is nice and there is a Subway and a McDonald’s not far away with two Metro stop within walking distance.

On my first day in Moscow we went shopping for food, since the apartment is furnished but the fridge is empty. If you’ve never been to a traditional Russian food store then you will know how inconvenient it is, but for those who haven’t I will try to explain the system. In the United States and other developed countries, food markets are designed so you can push a cart down the aisles and put what you want into a basket. You have free reign to pick up what you want and then pay for it before leaving the store. In Russia, this system simply does not work because too many people end up shoplifting or creating distractions so they can grab and run with whatever it is they want. So most markets are designed with inconvenience in mind. Everything is behind glass cases and you must tell an assistant what it is that you want. When you don’t speak Russia and she don’t speak English, this ends up being a weird game of pointing combined with charades. Now you’d expect that once you have managed to communicate to the shop assistant what it is you want, she would give it to you. Wrong. Instead, she gives you a piece of paper with a price written on it. You then have to take this paper to another counter where you will pay for your item. Once you have paid, then you must take that receipt back to the original counter and retrieve you now-paid-for items. Confusing? Yes. Wait, it gets worse. Most shops are divided into departments; meats and cheeses, dry goods, water and drinks, etc. And for every department there are two different counters. This means that to buy a loaf of bread, a bottle of water and package of bacon you must speak to a minimum of 6 shop assistants at 6 different counters and wait in 6 different lines. It’s a wonder that anything gets done with efficiency in Russia.

To their credit, Moscow now has several large Western-style supermarkets that are very popular. A few days later I went into one because I wanted to buy a bunch of Russian and European candy for my niece and nephew. The security was very tight and the guards would not let anyone carrying large bags or boxes into the market. You had the option of leaving your parcel or bag with the door guard (yeah right, and never see it again) while you shopped or not shopping at all. Russians are used to such inconveniences and almost never complain. For them it’s a way of life and so ingrained into their society that it is normal.

On the second day in Moscow we decided to go see Red Square and the Kremlin. The fastest and cheapest way to get there was the Metro, Moscow’s underground subway system. Now, I live in New York City and thought I had seen the epitome of public transportation, but Moscow’s Metro wins hands down. In New York I am used to descending a single staircase, at most 20-30 feet below the city’s streets, but in Moscow they have the longest and tallest escalators in the world. I remember riding an escalator into the bowels of Moscow for what seemed like an eternity, wondering if this was anything like taking an escalator to Hell. I was surprised to see clean hallways and amazing masses of people moving in unison to and from the trains. Every sign is in Cyrillic so I was unable to determine where I was without careful study of a Metro map, but I had my Russian friend with me so we never got lost once. The most amazing thing about Moscow’s Metro is the chandeliers. Hanging from the ceiling, there they were. It’s something I think you would only ever see in Moscow. I can’t even imagine it in New York. Again, the difference in cultures is readily apparent. The other thing I had to get used to was the frequency of the trains. In New York I’m used to waiting at least five minutes, usually ten between trains. In Moscow, if you wait more than two minutes people start looking down the track. Every Metro station has a giant digital clock above the tunnel the trains disappear into. One part of this clock displays the time and the other displays the amount of time that has passed since the last train. During rush hour, the trains run like clockwork, arriving every two minutes. I have no idea how they do it, but it works and serves as an interesting contrast in efficiency when compared to so many other aspects of Russian society.

Up next: Part 5: The Moscow Circus and saying goodbye to Lena.

Posted by Cameron Barrett at January 18, 2003 09:57 PM