Reader’s Forum

Mixed memories of Moscow

by Rob Paradis

The following Training Guide is intended to prepare the athlete, coach and sport official for a visit to Moscow. The Guide contains many ‘helpful’ hints which will be an invaluable aid to your personal preparation prior to leaving Canada, ed.

Arriving at Moscow’s Sheremetjevo Airport

You may have just watched your aircraft’s wheels touch the ground on Soviet territory — but you ain’t in yet! In fact, unless you’re extremely lucky, you won’t be “in” for another hour and a half. In the meantime, you will be treated (?) to that most quaint and time-honoured of all Russian traditions — the lineup. You must line up for passport check and then you must line up for customs/luggage check, and (you guessed it) the washrooms are on the other side of both these lineups!

The Soviet passport check can be an unnerving experience to the uninitiated. A stoney-faced army officer sitting outside a glass booth will try to match the disheveled, tired, jet-lagged face standing in front of him to your five-year-old passport picture. He attacks his responsibilities with a zealous passion, demanding your name, checking your height against a chart marked on the glass in front of him. Finally, he stares at you . . . and stares . . . and stares. He is, you surmise, either trying to check the colour of your eyes or else he is trying to look into the depths of your soul to see if you cheered for the United States Olympic hockey team in Lake Placid during the 1980 Winter Olympics. Then . . . he says, “Next!”

TRAINING TIP: Practice staring at yourself in the mirror. Do not smile; do not blink; do not think about hockey.

A few novel features (or a lack thereof) in Moscow hotels

For the most part, hotels in Moscow fall into three categories: those built for the Moscow Olympics in 1980; those built previous to those built for the Olympics; and those built for Russian citizens.

Any of the hotels built for the 1980 Olympics are comparable to any major North American chain, such as Holiday Inn, and are quite comfortable. If you find yourself in one of the older hotels, it’s a good idea to bring some extra coat hangers and an all-purpose sink plug. These items are sometimes missing from the rooms. In all instances, bring some toilet paper!

TRAINING TIP: To truly experience Russian living, acclimatize yourself by using sandpaper (fine grain) or tree bark (preferably cedar) for three weeks prior to leaving Canada.

Uniqueness on the Moscow Metro

Any visitor to Moscow must sample the Moscow Metro. It is a simple process to understand the system. First buy two Metro maps — one in the English alphabet and the other in the Russian alphabet. The English map will show you how the station stops are pronounced and the Russian map will aid you in recognizing the Metro signs at each station stop.

The Moscow Metro is a very efficient method of travel since most major hotels and sport competition sites are within walking distance of a Metro station.

The stations themselves are works of art, with chandeliers, stained glass, sculptures, and carvings adorning them. And all this for five kopeks (eight cents). The highlight is the escalator system. The escalators are hundreds of feet long and travel at twice the speed of Canadian department store escalators. The trick is getting on and off — this manoeuvre takes a bit of getting used to.

Metro lineups in Moscow are not the polite, passive lineups one usually finds in Canada. Rather they are active, dynamic and aggressive, with every inch of empty space open for contest. Every trick used to get that space is justifiable, including elbowing and shoving. However, each act of ‘metro aggression’ is done with a completely blank and passive facial expression. We came to realize that the pushing and shoving is the norm with no aggression intended. And it’s a wonderful way to relieve frustration! It’s easy to pick the Canadians out of the crowd — they’re the ones who are pushing, shoving, elbowing . . . and smiling.

TRAINING TIP: Take any city bus during rush hour. Wait until the bus comes to a complete stop before making your move to get off. Then try to get out the door furthest away from where you are standing. Do this for 14 days prior to leaving Canada. If the bus is not completely full, do not count it as a training session.

Restaurant fare a “gamble”

Dining out in Moscow is another of life’s mixed blessings. Since all restaurants are state-run, there is no competition to provide better service. As a result, you may find yourself spending a lot of time waiting for your waiter.

The menus usually offer a wide variety of meals and may be up to 10 pages long. However, your actual choice is often limited to two or three of the dishes mentioned. Be prepared to reorder two or three times until you find something on the menu that is still in stock — or you can take a ‘safe gamble’ and order fish. Fish is safe because they always have fish in Russian restaurants. It’s a gamble because you never know what kind of fish you’re going to get.

At one Moscow restaurant, two people ordered chicken and one person ordered sturgeon. The waiter returned after 10 minutes and informed the diners that there was only one portion of chicken left. But, he said, there’s lots of sturgeon. So one order was changed to sturgeon. When the meal was finally delivered to the table, there was one order of chicken — and two orders of fish, neither of which was sturgeon!

Moscow restaurants close sharply at 11:00 p.m. If you are not finished your meal, you are told to “hurry up” as you are being treated to the sights and sounds of the cleaning ladies removing the dirty dishes and washing the floors. No one in Russia gets paid overtime so no one works any later than they have to.

TRAINING TIP: Prior to leaving for Moscow, go to an Italian restaurant and order a Big Mac. After you are told that they don’t have Big Macs, order chop suey, then Kentucky Fried Chicken, and finally, order spaghetti. Of course, what your stomach had been looking forward to all day was lasagna!

Shopping system also a novelty

Shopping in Moscow is a unique experience, whether it be in the Russian stores or the Beriozkas, which accept only foreign currency.

The Russian penchant for control is never more evident than when you are shopping. Take, for example, the Canadian sportsman who wishes to buy a Russian fur hat.

First he goes to the fur hat section of the store. Here he joins a lineup and if he has really mastered his Metro training, he pushes his way to the front of the lineup. Once at the front, he is allowed the privilege of looking at a hat. After he has made his choice of style and colour, our intrepid Canadian must get the attention of the clerk, who takes the hat away from him and puts it under the counter. She next gives the customer an invoice for the hat. As our hero presents his money, he is told that this clerk does not accept money — he must go to the cash to pay.

“And where is the cash?” he asks. “Well, it’s at the other end of that lineup over there!” is the indignant reply. (Innuendo: “Where the hell do you think it is?”).

So the prospective buyer makes his way to the end of the cashier’s lineup, invoice in hand, but no hat . . . With diligence, perserverance and fond memories of Gordie Howe, he makes his way to the front of this line, pays the cashier and is handed a receipt.

“Well, where’s my hat?” he ventures. “It’s where you left it, of course. It’s with the clerk at the fur hat counter (Idiot!) right over there at the other end of that lineup!”

So it’s back to lineup Number One to present the receipt to clerk Number One and receive the long-awaited fur hat. This procedure can take over one hour as opposed to five minutes for a similar transaction in Canada.

TRAINING TIP: Go to the local multi-cinema movie house. Line up for the wrong movie. Wait until you reach the front of the line and then switch lines. Repeat this procedure until you no longer care whether you see the movie or not. Then go to the end of the right line.

To go to a sporting event in Moscow is the chance of a lifetime. It will leave you with good memories and bad memories, but all of them are worthwhile.

While in Moscow, be sure to visit or call the Canadian Embassy. The people who work there are just as anxious to see fellow Canadians as you will be to meet them. The hospitality shown to our group was unbelievable and the support they gave the Canadian gymnasts, both during and after the competition, was fantastic. They are also good storytellers so a visit with them is certainly worth your while.

Good luck to all competitors, coaches and officials travelling to Moscow. Here’s to a rewarding experience both on and off the competitive floor!

Rob Paradis is the Men’s Technical Director of the Canadian Gymnastics Federation. He was in Moscow for the 1981 World Gymnastics Championships in October 1981.

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