Checking Boxes: A Night at the Opera

I know that opera is not everyone’s cup of tea.  Anthony occasionally plays it very loudly on his Sonos speakers, to the annoyance of almost everyone in the house.  I object to the loudness rather than the actual music.  My experience thus far of live opera has been woefully negligible.  A long-ago performance of Aida in Tblisi, Georgia (not so memorable), a choral version of something I went to with Peter for his IB music class (can’t even remember the name) and the first half of The Marriage of Figaro (also for Peter’s IB music; a modern interpretation and we only stayed for the first act because…let’s face it…we had dragged Jamie along with the promise of leaving at the intermission).

It really didn’t seem right not to give it a fair chance, especially here in the city of high culture.  To maximise the chances of a successful experience we settled on one of the biggies.  La Bohème on the Bolshoi New Stage – a smaller but equally spectacular venue than the historic stage, for which we didn’t have to mortgage the house to buy the tickets and agreed that it would not be the end of the world to leave at the intermission.  We also decided not to eat dinner beforehand – mostly because it was a weekday and the chance of Anthony getting away on time for a 5pm reservation was zero, but also because the theater experience here should include the Buffet (my Russian language teacher corrected me most indignantly when I called it the “Bar”).  A beautifully appointed wood-paneled room where you can enjoy a range of beverages from tea and coffee to expensive champagne and whisky, accompanied by a variety of open-faced sandwiches and expensive desserts.

The people I encounter have been so much a part of my experiences here in Moscow, and this was no exception.  Sharing our banquette table at the buffet were two ladies who had clearly been theater-going friends for a long time.  Not only by their early arrival, but by the expert way in which they conveyed three glasses of champagne and two plates of snacks through the growing crowd.  We made room for a third friend who arrived late (and with more champagne) and were treated to much expressive nodding of thanks, and some very animated chatter.

Our seats in the dress circle gave us an excellent view over the general proceedings and we took them early so as to have an opportunity to take in the beauty of the theater.

The opera itself was, in a word, spectacular.  Everything from the orchestra and soloists to the costumes and scenery simply took my breath away, if you’ll forgive the cliché.  There is always a guarantee of excellence at the Bolshoi, but I did not expect to be so captivated.  Even without understanding the words, the story was revealed clearly in the emotion and passion of the music and the eloquence of the artistes.  There was no question of us leaving at the intermission, and by the end I was feeling a little bit like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (yes, there might have been a few tears).

At the intermission we saw our three lovely friends again, where they spotted us standing awkwardly with our drinks and insisted on making room at their table for us to squeeze in beside them.  As the bell rang to signal the end of the intermission, they waved their hands in vigorous denial, insisting that there was plenty of time to finish drinks.  They were delightful, and as so often happens when we are out and about, our interaction with them served to reinforce our love of Russian people and the way in which they embrace their city and its rich culture.  Back in our seats we spotted them across and one level up from us and could not resist taking a photo.  That’s them – in the front row, to the left of the lady on the phone.

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At the end of the evening was the usual (if always dignified and polite) scrum to pick up coats and fight your way out of the theater into the Moscow night.

My heart was completely won over by this wonderful experience.  Perhaps it might even make me more tolerant of occasional loud opera via Sonos in the house.

Back to the Writing Board

I lost my writing mojo back in December – actually I lost my reading, knitting, sewing, sleeping mojos too – when I had back surgery at the European Medical Center (EMC) to stabilize my L3/4 joint with an artificial disk and a ridiculous titanium construction held in place with four scary-looking screws.

Recovery has been slow and complicated.  A rare but high-risk spinal fluid leak and infection landed me back in the hospital 6 weeks after the initial surgery.  While I received the best possible care from the hospital and my team of surgeons, it was a bit scary for a while.  The advocacy and support of our own medical team here at the embassy, my #1 cheerleader (Anthony), and the support of family and friends here and far away got me through what turned out to be a pretty stressful and worrying two months.

For the two months since then, I have been working under the very watchful eye of the Head of Rehabilitation at the EMC.  He worked with me on pain management before my surgery and the other day, during a physical therapy training, commented on how pleased he is with the way I am moving compared with my pre-surgery struggles.  Sometimes I need that reminder – how every movement, every step, everything I did was painful.  I have my active life back.

I had two personal goals – to return to Tae kwon Do class (in whatever limited capacity I was able), and to skate one time before the winter was over.  When Peter was home from college, we got to Gorky Park (my favourite skating venue) right before the skating trails were dismantled for the Spring.

I have to admit to feeling most pleased at being able to participate in my last Tae Kwon Do tournament.  Having earned our black belts here in Moscow, it was a big part of life for me (and, to a lesser extent, the boys) here.  The adults in my events were the same adults I’d competed against every year.  One or two had earned their black belts with me.  All of us with some kind of injury or another at one time or another, commiserating and, occasionally, sharing survival tips!  I was very glad to be able to show up.

Those were the biggies.  Little did I know at the time that I would have to create other goals.  To knit again.  To finish a book.  To get out of a chair without help.  To write again.  The last one has taken me the longest.  Partly because other things took priority – being able to walk, to climb stairs, to get in the pool, to sit, to sleep all night.  Then, as my recovery progressed, my days filled with other things.  Finally, I simply became overwhelmed by the sheer volume of experiences to write, that I backed away from it altogether.

Well, I think the thing to do is to take the advice of a writer friend of mine and just start somewhere and see where it goes from there.  I feel the need to apologise in advance.  Things may not come in any logical order.  I’ll be regressing to things I did pre-surgery at the same time as I am writing about things happening right now.

Having shared my life in Moscow with the world for almost four years, the last stretch seems to be more about making sure the experiences don’t slip away before I leave.  3 months now and counting…

So that it will not be Forgotten

It’s one year after the events of April 5th 2018.  I spent most of yesterday wanting to put something in writing, but felt at a loss for the right words.  So much was expressed back then, by so many.  In the past weeks, social media memories provided a constant stream of “last moments” that at the time we did not know were the last.  In the end, it seems, a simple acknowledgement might be enough.

April 5th 2018

Early morning

One week after being announced as Personae Non Gratis by the Russian Government, 60 of our friends and colleagues and their families boarded three buses and rolled out of the compound gates just as dawn lit the sky with a new day.

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One year later, many of those who left that morning called in on social media with greetings, memories, and a “where are you now?” check-in.  They are as far afield as Abu Dhabi, Bankok, Ottawa, Stockholm, Niamey, Paraguay, Riyadh, New Delhi, Washington D.C.  Or as close as Stockholm, London, Belgrade, Pristina, Kiev, Yerevan, Tashkent.

Some moved on last summer in the natural way of things for the Foreign Service.  Some are still here in Moscow – many (including us) preparing for departure during the coming transition season.

The officers and families who left St. Petersburg after the closure of the Consulate have become so much a part of our community here in Moscow that their marking of the one-year anniversary of the day their flag was taken down took me somewhat by surprise.  But, of course, they remember and commemorate.

Those who have since joined the community – new officers and their families – have taken up the baton with the same fierce determination to make the mission strong, and to carry on the work.  Empty offices and quiet hallways have become the norm.

The dozens of American who were forced to go home in the eight months from September to April may be scattered now.  But the feeling remains that the threads of our lives will forever be tangled together by the events of 2017 and 2018.   No matter how far away we may be in years to come – both in time and location – we will always have September 2017 and April 2018 in common.  We will likely always take a moment to recall the loss.

Sunrise to Sunset and a Porcelain Factory in Between

Driving out of Moscow on early winter mornings, you are often treated to one of nature’s most dazzling shows – a late winter sunrise.  As light creeps up over the horizon, the sun will follow, catching the clouds of steam rising from the city factories and painting them in shades of yellow and orange.  It’s impossible to capture in a photograph, as the light changes every second.  Add in the darkened buildings on the skyline, and you have a reason worth getting out and about early.

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Anthony and I seem to spend a lot of time in the Mighty Silverado these days as I work my way somewhat methodically through my “List of Things to do Before we Leave.”  The Porcelain Factory in Gzhel was our destination a couple of weeks ago – taking advantage of an Embassy day off for Veterans’ Day.  By doing a little research, I found out that the factory would accept visitors for private tours, and with a fluent Russian speaker on hand, it was easy to arrange.

I am always delighted by the pride Russians take in handcrafting – it is very much a part of their history and who they are as a people.  We were shown around this small factory by a lady who had encyclopedic knowledge of the area.  Gzhel has historically produced the best clay in Russia – apparently even the Imperial China Factories come to Gzhel for their clay.  She was very proud of this and you can see the history of the clay (from the crudest ceramic bowls to the most delicate china) and the development of the creative process (including some very eccentric designers) in the tiny factory museum. My favourite piece was one created by one these designers with his self-portrait in the center of samples of all his creations.

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The walk around the factory floors, however, was what I had come for.  Starting with a lesson on the operation of enormous ovens (standing cold and unattended today), we made our way from floor to floor, each one representing a different step in the process.

Perhaps because it was just the two of us, she allowed me to take photos, to touch the molds, to peer into the shelves of glazed but unfired pieces.  We passed by rows of bowls, plates, vases, ranks of soldiers and flocks of birds – all the distinct pink color of the white underglaze, waiting to be fired.

She explained the painstaking process of turning clay into white figures and vessels; from white clay to the traditional blue and white porcelain for which the region is rightly famous.

The painting rooms were my favourite.  Ladies hunched over tables lined with rows of statues, bowls, cups, and other ornaments, waiting in rows along the shelves above them.

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The skill in their hands was a sight to behold – right in front of us they replicated the same flower or ornamental leaf on every piece.

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Faces on porcelain pigs were painted by looking into a mirror – one cheeky face grinning at us while we watched another brought to life with just a few skilled strokes of a brush.

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At one table a fresh-faced Snow Princess waited patiently, a long dark braid flowing down her back, but an air of being not-quite-finished-yet about her, while her sisters waited behind her for their turn.

For the final step, the master glazer was not even wearing gloves as she dipped each painted piece into a bath of clear glaze, which would then be fired to allow the painted decorations and features to appear blue through the white.

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And then it was my turn.  A one-on-one master class where I would be taught the painting techniques and allowed to paint a piece of my own.  The pleasure was in the learning process.  Practicing the swirls of petals and tiny fine lines of facial features. I chose a matryoshka doll.  My efforts at bringing her to life were somewhat shaky, but my teacher seemed to think I did well for a first-timer.

Meanwhile, back in the truck, Anthony had found us a place to get some shashlik for lunch and, more importantly, a place to load the bed of the truck with firewood.  Winter is, after all, on its way.

In Moscow, we hit the city at the perfect time to see the sunset – bathing the Kremlin and golden domes of the cathedrals in an orange glow, and once again treating us to one of nature’s finest lightshows.

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Running out of Time: Carpe Diem!

Eight months and counting…

Once upon a time it seemed like we had all the time in the world here, and now I am panicking at how little time I have left to do it all and see it all.  When I first arrived, I was so blasé about having time.  I remember a conversation in my first winter here with Moon, one of my colleagues at work, about how pathetically few museums we had been to, and we made a sort of pact to try to go to one a month.  I remember listing all the places I wanted to see in my head and anticipating (when we extended our tour to 4 years) that there was plenty of time.  When my year off began, I was filled with enthusiasm and optimism about checking things off the list.

Somehow, life just got in the way.  A 10-hour work day turned weekends into precious family time.  Skeleton staffing and political instability dominated and changed everyone’s priorities. Cancelled weekend trips and health issues ate into the past couple of “months off.”

I am also in that “this is the last time we will see this” phase.  Our last fall here – the patio furniture has already been stored away and the bicycles (well, except Anthony’s who will bike like a crazy guy in all weathers) are tagged and handed over to facilities for storage.  Our last Halloween – everyone said we had the “best house” but I think the mulled wine and hot chocolate with marshmallows gave us the edge.  We are approaching our last Thanksgiving and our last winter.  The last Moscow Marine Ball is next week, and don’t even start me on the last Irish White Ball and St. Patrick’s Day.

Don’t read me wrong – I have not exactly been sitting around twiddling my thumbs.  Even a quick look at my blog and photos tells me a story of seized opportunities and unimagined experiences.  I consider myself to have been incredibly lucky here and the purpose of this post is not to be melancholy.  It’s to look at my remaining time and do a little realistic planning.  I’m going to borrow a strategy from my other (teaching) life and take a “must do; want to do but might take a bit of strategic planning; would really like to do if I have time” approach.  With the list in front of me, the likelihood of checking it off is greater.  The likelihood of regrets might be a little less.

Must do

Nutcracker Ballet at the Bolshoi (this has been on my list since before I even got here)
Other Ballets – Jewels and Giselle.
Swan Lake just one more time because it really is my favourite
At least one opera
The Philharmonic (yes, ashamed to say we have not yet been)
Tretyakov museum (we went briefly in our first year and it was a “how long will 6 teenagers spend in here before they decide they have “checked the box and now are hungry” visit)
Cosmonaut Museum
Tolstoy’s Estate
Pushkin’s Home
Dog Sledding and Reindeer Farm
River boat ride in the winter
The Porcelain Factory at Gzhel
The Christmas Ornament factory (yep – running out of time on this one, I know)
Troika Ride
Cities on the Golden Ring – Suzdal, Vladimir, Yarloslavl (to name just a few I haven’t seen)
St. Petersburg one more time (I have not yet seen the Fabergé museum or ballet at the Marinsky, and have barely skimmed the Hermitage)
Anywhere North of the Arctic Circle

Want to do but might take some strategic planning

Lake Baikal, preferably in the winter
Murmansk – hopefully to see the Northern Lights
Vladivostok – it’s the farthest point East that we would go
Trans-Siberian Railroad – any part of it and maybe we could combine with the above
Arkhangelsk

Would really Like to do if I have Time

Kaliningrad
Sochi when it is not raining
Lake Baikal in the spring/summer

And now – a word to all our friends and family out there who also thought they had all the time in the world when we extended to 4 years.  We have eight months, and although it might not seem logical (or possible, if you are of a scientific nature) the countdown is moving way faster than it did in those first three years.  Believe me, I know.  So, for your benefit I want to do two things.  First of all, I want to say that we have had visitors spend as little as 36 hours (two teenage boys who came determined never to sit down and to get very little sleep), and as long as soon-to-be 10 days (nice going Tom Godfrey and family).  We even had/will have repeat visitors (Go Caroline, Eilís, Joanie and Susan!).  Most people spend 3-5 full days here.  In 3 days you can see all the key sights, and even get some sleep and enjoy a couple of relaxing meals.  In 5 days you can add in one or two of the next level experiences and maybe a drive out of the city to one of the farther-flung places-to-do-in-a-day.  In a week you can do an overnight trip to St. Petersburg on the Sapsan (fastest speed 270kph and station to station in 4 hours).

Second of all I want to tell you all the things I have happily done with every single visitor, and because I love these quintessential Moscow experiences so much I have done them many times on my own or with local friends.  Moscow experiences that I NEVER tire of sharing.  At this point, I’m a pretty good tour guide myself, and if you are here over a weekend you can add in Anthony – fluent Russian Speaker who gets the best bargains at the market.

I’m happy to go again and again to:

Red Square
St. Basil’s
Kremlin tour
River boat ride (and if you look again at my bucket list, I still have not done it in the winter)
Metro tour
Izmailovo market
Gorky Park – fountains in the summer, skating in the winter (and if you don’t skate you can walk the high-rise boardwalks and watch the skaters)
Walking in our neighbourhood along the river
Novodevichy Convent, park, cemetery
Biking along the river (again not in the winter unless you are Anthony Godfrey)
Museums and galleries (too many to mention)
Concerts, ballets, opera (again too many to mention)
Restaurants  – where do I start?

Well…it’s almost winter, I hear you say, and you don’t like the cold.  Well, not many people like the cold, but let me tell you that nobody does cold weather better that the Russians.  All of the sights can be enjoyed at any time of year and winter here is something really special – I say this NOT with tongue in cheek.  There is no predicting what there will be to enjoy outside.  Heated out-door markets.  Ice-slides at Red Square.  Countless ice-rinks.  Tubing and ice-sculptures at Victory Park.  The city lights up and it is hard to tell the day from the night (mostly because there is not much day, so they really illuminate the nights).  Photos just don’t do it justice.

Spring and early summer are spectacular, though admittedly it is hard to predict when spring will actually begin.  That’s when the city shakes off the memories of the long, cold winter and the same army of city employees who were out shoveling snow are out planting a blaze of color.  Again, it’s hard to tell day from night, but that’s because there is not too much night…

Do I have a favourite time of year?  I have favourites for each time of year.  In the spring and summer it’s probably the same as any other city – the clear blue skies, sloughing off of the winter months, an occasional drop in temperature with even a snowfall (so you don’t get too complacent), the appearance of color and green.  Walks along the river, sitting outside, fountains, and trees.

The autumn comes fast.  Blink and you miss the changing colors, softening of the light, carpets of leaves (because they rake them almost as fast as they fall), and that perfect temperature outside when a sweater and boots is enough.  The first drop below zero, the warning that you really should pull out that winter gear, but then you get another reprieve (like today) when a hat is too much and gloves not really necessary, and the long weekend means the carpet of yellow on green will be there for a few more days.

But the winters here have captured my senses like nowhere else I have ever lived.  Cold like I have never known.  Cold that freezes the hairs inside your nose and your tears as they run down your cheeks.  Cold that catches your breath and numbs your face.  Cold that puffy coats, Kamik boots, and fur-lined hoods were made to withstand, but still don’t quite hack it if you stay out longer than…well…too long.  Crunchy footfalls.  Six-sided snowflakes on your coat.  Breathtaking scenery and crisp, clean air.

Snow on the ground for months at a time.  Snow that piles up in drifts and into which anything left on the ground (balls, scooters, trash, dog-poop) disappears, freezes, and reappears in a sludgy mess when the big melt finally comes in April…or May.  Snow that piles up in mountains along the streets and is magically whisked away by an army of snowploughs, trucks, frontloaders, and snow-removing machines for which I don’t know the names – all working constantly to keep the city in business while winter rages on incessantly.

And then you go inside, light a fire, and admire it all from the inside.

There you have it.  The same question I keep answering in many of my latest Blog posts.  Why Moscow? Because we are still here.  Because I guarantee you will not regret visiting, and you might just regret it if you don’t.

Dog Society at Novodevichy

Human society has been pretty disheartening in the last while.  In order to keep in touch with news from home and around the world, I spend an hour or more every morning clicking here and there on the well-known news sources, occasionally digging deeper on a story or two, but that with greater reluctance lately.  I’m not going to waste my space with a list.  It’s been difficult to find news that brings a smile.

But before I had a chance to open my laptop this morning, Anthony had made me a cup of tea and a slice of toast, told me to drink up and get dressed, and come for a walk to Novodevichy Park with Lara.  In the face of such enthusiasm and determination (and having already scrolled through the depressing breaking news on my phone), what could I do but…eat up, drink up, and get dressed (in something warmer than a sweatshirt).

With Lara barely containing herself in the back of the Silverado (this is a routine walk for her) as we arrived, the sun well up in the sky, and the quietness of the park evident despite its proximity to the river embankment, I was glad I had grabbed the camera on the way out.  I could tell the soft light through the trees would present opportunities for that often-elusive perfect fall photo.

A quick tour-guide overview: Novodevichy is a convent built in what is known as the Moscow Baroque style – with the traditional onion domes – and is a World heritage Site.  The UNESCO website can give you more information.  (https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1097).

The Cemetery is one of the most-visited sites outside the Kremlin and is the final resting place for the likes of Anton Chekov, Nikita Krushchev, and Boris Yeltsin. It also has a replica of the “Make Way for Ducklings” sculpture, originally found in Boston. It is a ten-minute drive, and about a 20 minute bike-ride from home.

However, to the dogs of Moscow and their owners, the historical significance of the Convent pales in comparison to the significance and popularity of the park.  Walking past (and trying to ignore) the mess the crows were making of uncollected trash, we made our way to the pond and the path around it. A destination for fishermen, joggers, or even just those seeking a place for a quiet sit, the park with its as-yet-unoccupied playground and wooded copses provides an early-morning meeting-place and playground for dogs.

Some don’t want to play.  Some are too old to play.  Some play too rough.  Lara’s best buddy, apparently, is a Beagle, easily spotted through the trees trying to play nice with a very large, very barky German Shepherd.  Beagle seemed very pleased to see Lara, as did his owner.  Barky German Shepherd was returned to his leash, though by the way he hung around watching somewhat wistfully (I thought) the owner wished he would play more nicely with others.

Dog interaction is straightforward.  Off-leash, if they are going to get along, they will sniff a little, give a little bark (of invitation) and off they go running around in crazy circles, tongues hanging out, and ears (in Lara’s case) flapping in pure delight.  If they are not going to get along, this also becomes evident very quickly as one will assert dominance by barking loudly and bearing down.  As in the case of barky German Shepherd.

As I watched this morning, I saw many owners, with dogs on leashes, stop on the paths near enough to watch but far enough away that it was clear they were not sure if their dogs would play nicely enough to join in.  Others (mostly joggers), had their own agenda, but slowed down enough to let their dogs and Lara sniff in greeting before jogging on their way.  One owner saw that Lara was clearly friendly, and allowed his dog off the leash, encouraging him to go and say hello.  His dog was more interested in marking his territory on a tree than running in crazy circles to play, and Lara quickly lost interest, preferring instead to chew a stick thrown for her by Anthony.

On the way out, we saw the Old Lady Dog, shuffling along behind her owner, not stopping to socialize today…feeling a bit grumpy, maybe.

Not me.  A little dog society on a beautiful autumn morning, in a beautiful place.  Maybe having captured that almost-perfect autumn photo.  Just the thing to restore some of my faith in the world.

Cramming it in: Tula in Five Hours

Tula, a small city (by Russian standards, at less than half a million people, it is small), was not really on my last-year-in-Moscow bucket list.  Actually, I had never heard of it until Anthony decided we needed to start our “let’s cram as much as we can into our last ten months” with a day trip – any kind of day trip – on Labor Day.  Yaroslavl was his first choice.  It occupies the top slot of the “Ten Places to Drive to in a Day From Moscow” list.  But at 3 and a half hours there and back (not allowing for traffic) it didn’t really qualify, in my books, as a place to “drive to in a day.” Tula, at 2 and a half, was Dublin to Galway distance – a distance I have driven many times to and from in a day – so we piled our bicycles into the mighty Silverado, and launched ourselves due south at around 8:15am.

Tula has – surprise, surprise – a Kremlin, a Cathedral, a river, and a large park or two.  It is also the home of the Samovar, Russian Gingerbread (also known as pryanik), and the first armament factory in Russia, commissioned by Tsar Peter I.  Enough to qualify as a place of interest that might occupy four or five hours.

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Before entering the city, a monument NOT mentioned in the very limited research we had done became our first stop.  We almost sped past it, really, but it seemed worth a look, and there was an easy place to do a U-turn.  It was, in fine Socialist Realism style, a clear celebration of Russian Victory over the enemy at the gate in WWII: a Russian bomber soaring into the sky over a doomed, crashing, Nazi fighter plane.  A monument to the war, with thanks to each of the allies in their own language.  Along the back, an alphabetical list of the names of the fallen from the city.   Well worth a stop.

We arrived into Tula 5 days before the celebration of its 500th birthday.  Parking along the Kremlin was easy to find, so we abandoned ship and took to our bicycles as a way to cover more ground in our limited time.

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The Kremlin was first built five centuries ago and, according to a diorama at the Museum, once housed the entire population inside its walls.  It has been rebuilt, rather than restored, but was definitely looking its Sunday best.

The weapons museum was, unfortunately, closed.  As was the Samovar Museum (to my great disappointment).  The curse of Museum Dark Day Monday.  The history museum was open, though I think this was mostly due to the frantic completion work being done for the aforementioned upcoming city day.  For the entirely reasonable sum of 200 rubles, we wandered three floors and 500 years of Tula Military history.  The top floor reminded me, very much, of the museum at Gallipoli – exhibits showing the minutiae of a soldiers life, the contents of his haversack or desk, alongside the weaponry for which Tula is famous.

Stopping to buy my obligatory fridge magnet, I was a little taken aback at the opportunity to buy a variety of toy weapons.

 

Along one wall of the Kremlin was a row of charming craft shops and cafes.  A gingerbread store where you can buy, decorate, or explore the history of Pryanik – cookies made from honey and spices; a ceramics studio where you can buy pottery, and take classes; a café for apples and apple tea; and (surprisingly) a tourist information center.

The significance of family to the Russians is one of their defining characteristics . This is also evident here.  Outside the Kremlin walls is a playground and a bronze hedgehog statue rubbed shiny by many tiny hands – apparently a gift to the children of Tula by the Mayor’s wife.

After a hurried lunch, we biked our way through the city to find the Central Park.  A BIG mistake (says me, Anthony would disagree).  Fighting our way uphill, along busy streets with rushing, impatient pedestrians, and dusty uneven paths, I have to admit to a decided “this is really not fun” attitude. Anthony admitted that we “probably did not take the most direct route, but it seemed like the fastest on Google maps.”  My irritation and lack of enthusiasm was mollified by the delightfully quiet and extensive Central City Park of Culture and Recreation.  It being a working weekday for citizens of Tula, we had the place practically to ourselves.

Tree-lined bike-paths led past fountains, playgrounds, and cafes.  There was a “Zone of relaxation,” which turned out to be a rectangular stretch of grass  surrounded by a box hedge; an “Avenue of Adventure,”  which was a sorry-looking stretch of kid-sized rides, abandoned now that school had started, a tiny book-swap library, and, of all things, a beach.

We spent a very pleasant hour biking around the park, no rushing pedestrians or dusty construction, in search of the beach.  It took a while, and we had almost given up, but I was pretty determined.  We found exactly what I expected – a Soviet-style man-made “beach” on a man-made lake.  Paddle- and row-boats, lounge beds, and a guard hut from which (presumably) the man-in-charge could yell at rule-breakers through his megaphone without leaving the comfort of his chair.

From the park we took the direct route back to the truck, piled the bikes back in the back, and headed for our final stop of the day – an up-close and personal look at some very imposing war machinery.  The Tula State Museum of Weapons also houses five floors of exhibits, arranged historically with the earliest years on the bottom floor.  The museum is called “The Helmet Museum” because it is shaped, strangely enough, like a medieval Russian helmet.

A feature of this museum that I liked was an electronic interface for information on each item.  The exhibits were numbered individually, and a pad in front of each case had corresponding numbers with information in both English and Russian. A feature I was a little disconcerted by was the firing range in the basement, where you can try your hand at firing any number of guns and rifles.

You notice our day out in Tula is sorely lacking in culinary experiences.  We grabbed lunch at a reasonable fast-food pizza place, and fortified ourselves with a quick tea-and-cake at the café before venturing into the Weaponry Museum.  We sacrificed our usual hunt for good food in exchange for fitting in as much of Tula as we could, and still make it home for dinner with Jamie.

While not exactly a Metropolis, Tula is clearly proud of its contribution to the history of conflicts in Russia.  It definitely scratched my itch to see somewhere, anywhere, outside of but a reasonable distance from Moscow.