The Visa study cited noted that solo traveling was done mainly by “Women Wanderers” under age 45 (rats, I was hoping for a good showing for the over-60 crowd), and half were professionals from China and India. Again, down come crashing myths. What? Women from restrictive, third-world countries are professionals and they travel by themselves more than women from the USA?
The most frequent response I have to my solo womanly world wanderings is, “Oh you are so brave to go by yourself.” I have a hard time knowing what to say back. By nature, I am not a joiner. I live by myself and have for most of my life. So what, I’m supposed to hunker down with a tour group or cozy up with someone for a couple weeks of tight quarters? I’ve tried it, and learned. I don’t want to spend my vacation negotiating with someone else about when we go where, why. I don’t find the constant chatter of a companion a good sound track for exploration. Interjecting worry about whether or not my pal having a good time, is an extra layer of stress I prefer to leave behind.
So far, Steve and I are able to travel together peacefully, but his companionship is not a requirement for me to go on a trip.
I just returned from a ten-day solo adventure to Russia. A place shrouded in media myths; a country with a remarkable history and role in today’s world churn, it provided a double whammy to folks’ amazement about me traveling alone. “Ew, why Russia? By yourself? You are so brave!”
Oh Fiddlesticks! I‘m not brave; I’m a well-researched, curious traveler. I felt I needed to get to Russia if I was ever going to. Emotions are running high out there in the rarefied clouds of global politics, who knows when the doors would close and I would miss the chance to walk through palaces, past onion dome Orthodox churches, down blocks and blocks of beautiful buildings while thinking about Mongol Hordes, serfdom, the siege of Leningrad, the great social experiments of socialism and communism? Miss finding bowls of borscht or Uha fish soup, plates of pickled herring, or piles of Pelmeni dumplings stuffed with mushrooms? Miss immersing myself for days in art, losing myself in a night of flawless, extravagant, and passionate ballet? Miss wandering through sophisticated shops while cosmopolitan, stylish women stride tall beside me? No way!
There were hard moments during the trip but I’m not sure any of them would have been better if someone else was there. In fact, I finally settled on a very Zen-like, do-one-thing concentration to get myself around in the enormous public spaces and the particularly vexing Moscow metro. I found time slipped away, paring down my vacation to-do list with the velocity of a sharp Soviet scythe. I’m glad I didn’t have to argue with anyone about where I was or what was getting chopped off the list.
Here are a couple essays from my days there.
May 2 St. Petersburg: Go with the flow
I knew it was May Day, an embraced holiday in St. Petersburg and had planned my day so I could be in the midst of people out celebrating the beginning of warm and green on a day that celebrates revolution.
Stepping out of the hotel to walk to the metro, I slipped into a teeming of people. Families, soldiers on leave, lovers, grizzled old men, young men in black with buzz cuts--some with long hair and carefully coordinated outfits, women turned out in bright quilted jackets, formal wool coats and hats, black leather or sturdy soviet-style practicality. I've noticed personal space expectations are different here. This culture of standing in line, honed by the history of shortages and communal apartments, has a clear edge to it. No one steps aside for me, yet if I don't step aside for them, I'm frowned at. If I let too much space open between me and the person in front of me, it is filled in by someone else who doesn't care if I was there first. Friends stand close to each other on the long metro escalators, often one turning toward the other--speaking privately. Lovers face each other, woman on the higher step so they are face to face, sometimes kissing.
I squeezed out of the metro into Nevskiy Prospect (the popular main street, planned by Peter the Great as the road to Moscow) which was marked off by and lined by by police. I looked down the block toward loud speaker chanting to see marchers with flags. Someone handed me a little flag (which I think is now lost). Soon it was clear that this was a parade for all causes. Clumps of marchers with precious personal space in between demonstrating I don't know what --except for the animal rights activists with their abused dog, cat, rabbit and cow posters.
I got there late and the parade ended almost immediately. The crowd began to break and float off in various directions like icebergs. I have been running late ever since I got here in that my body wants to be loyal to Bloomington time. It's 7:39 am in Bloomington as I write this but 3:40 pm here. I'm lucky to get out of the hotel by noon or get to sleep before 3 in the morning. This makes me shoehorn in visiting places like museums into the afternoon and leaves me wandering the streets until nearly midnight (when the metro closes). So I knew I should boogie along if I wanted to see the fortress, the museum on political history, and Peter's Cabin. I headed toward the first of three bridges I had to cross but discovered a festival of sorts going on in the plaza. Dancing and singing on a stage and a huge crowd gathered. It was the crowd that got me. Especially the families with small children. The Russians dearly dote upon their children--hugging and hand holding, whispers and pets, little smiles. I have yet to see a child misbehave and have seen lots of well-received gentle correction. The adorable little girls, often in braids, are dressed in pink or purple quilted parkas and hats with decorative fabric flowers and tucks. The little boys in browns and tans, maybe a military cut to their style. All hoisted to shoulders to better see the festivities. I bet it's competitive--whose kids look the best. Over all the Russians are beautiful people. I can't get enough of looking at them. And quite tidy-- not many sloppy hairdos like mine.
Anyway, time slipped away for museums as I tarried in the crowd, snapping dozens of photos of children (to be posted after I get back). Then the slow, wind-swept walk across the Neva. Watching the Russians pose for holiday snapshots. Watching lovers kiss.
Now it had been hours since I left the hotel and hours since I had peed. Finding a bathroom here requires finding a restaurant and ordering something. So in between the 2nd and 3rd bridge, I headed off into the neighborhood in search of a snack and a pee. Blocks went by. Things became more urgent. Then my gut chimed in with an unwelcome churn. Maybe I shouldn't have eaten the caviar last night. More churning, more urgent, more blocks. In a direction opposite of the one I really want to go.
Finally. And the place is packed. I waited miserably in line for the john. Then I sat at the bar, not even hungry, but obliged to eat. No one waits on me. Times ticks by. At last I order. Tea and roasted veggies, I hope, because while the menu is translated no one there knows English. Nothing is served. My gut kicked up its whining and that familiar panic began to surface, so I dry-swallowed an Imodium AD just in case. Tea comes, the veggies do not. Times goes by, the restaurant starts to empty. No veggies. Finally I escaped, arguing about not being served quickly enough in English falling on sulking Russian ears, somehow getting my point across.
Available time much diminished, but gut settled down, I decided to skip the Fortress for Political History, took time consuming a wrong turn, backtracked, and discovered the museum closed. So I did a quick return, managed to buy Fortress tickets and an audio guide only to be told that everything would close early in an hour. So hurry hurry hurry on giant hard-to-walk-on cobblestone. Before me everywhere were huge school groups that blocked the way, impossible to get around. And before I knew it, time was up, and trot trot trot back to the front gate to return the almost unused headset. I hardly saw anything and was exhausted. Forget Peter's Cabin altogether.
So a nice dinner at the Mozart cafe is up next. Its only about a mile away. Ha! When I got there, they turned me away, no table on this busy holiday for a single person.
Now I am really tired, dehydrated from the drug, and hungry. Nice thing about being dehydrated is that you don't have to pee. Decided to just go back to the hotel and eat at a fast food place nearby. But easier thought than done. My map in shreds, I got turned around around around hunting for the metro. Then, once found, boarded and deboarded a body-to-body full train, I left the station to head for the hotel, but the street didn't look right. No English to Russian, I ask, pointing to my metro station on the map with a questioning look. The man shook his head as he pointed to a metro station three stops beyond where I should have been. My brain dull and barely working, I was having a hard time remembering exactly which station (written in Russian) was mine. I stopped. Regrouped. Reboarded the metro. This time before exiting the station, I asked no English to Russian, holding up my tattered map and pointing to the right station. "Yes," nods the man. Yet when I emerge on the street, it is wrong. Then sweet luck was with me, the next person I ask speaks English. I point to my street on the map. "Just 400 meters that way," she said. While thanking her, I wondered how far 400 meters is.
Dinner was a few blocks away, a hot cup of borscht, a nice blini with veggies, and a beer. Fast food Russian style. Followed by a 10 hour sleep.
And on this cold, rainy morning, the day set aside for the Hermitage, I am so sore and tired that I called off touristing for the morning. I'll go later, with The Flow.
May 4: Fast track to Moscow
Once I arrive, I have to immediately get a grip on a new metro system, with suitcase and not too smallish backpack in tow. In Moscow, they have a line that runs in a circle around the central city. I have to catch it going counterclockwise, get off in three stops and walk a bit to my hotel. Oh, wait, or is that clockwise? They tried to design the Moscow metro so a blind person could use it, so the announcer's voice clockwise is male, counterclockwise wise is female. But the metro signage and fare system are different than St. P. I have a croissant, chocolate bar, and water to sustain me. A metro system map on my phone. Granted, I have trouble with left and right, so clockwise and counterclockwise might get me going the wrong way, but hey, it's a circle.
The tracks were built 1842-1851--thanks to Nicholas I. Here's a little history:
" There is a very interesting and popular myth connected with the history of the Nikolaevskaya Railway construction. For many years the line was completely straight apart from a 17km (11miles) bend between Okulovka and Malaya Vishera, near the city of Novgorod. This was the subject of an urban legend that when planning the project, Tsar Nicholas I, who was reputedly exasperated by the bickering of officials arguing over the route, selected the route by taking a ruler and drawing a straight line between the two cities on a map, accidentally drew around his own finger on the ruler. The planners were supposedly too afraid to point out the error and constructed the line with the bend.
In reality, the Moscow - Saint Petersburg Railway was built without the curve. But there was a steep gradient at this location that caused severe problems for steam locomotives. Trains heading to St Petersburg would pick up so much speed that they could not stop at the next station, while those heading for Moscow could not get up the hill without the assistance of four locomotives. In order not to use additional locomotives, the Verebinsky bypass was constructed in 1877."
In the comments on this when originally posted on Facebook, Michael Martone noted that the engineer who designed this railway was Whistler's father, who grew up in Fort Wayne, IN.