Of all the places in the world, the last one I would’ve thought of finding myself in would be Tver. A small rural city somewhere in between St. Petersburg and Moscow, with half a million inhabitants – tiny for someone like me who grew up in a 15-million city.
My mom works in the movie industry, and her expeditions sometimes take her weird places. They often film in Belarus, once they filmed near Murmansk, on a Russian-Norwegian border, where local customs officers kept wild foxes for pets. This time the crew was to spend almost half a year in Tver, filming what was to be the story happening on the Russian-Chinese border. Don’t even ask me. They were first going to film it in the suburbs of Moscow.
Although Tver’s just over two hours on the train from the capital, the trip is quite tiring, and mom had neither time no powers to visit home. Instead, we would go see her whenever she had a day off, which happened extremely rarely. As I was away all summer roaming the roads of the US, it was my first time to go to Tver, right for my mom’s birthday.
Well, it’s only two hours, thought I and purchased the cheapest tickets possible, for little over $10 each way. Wrong move, m’am.
I walked into a stuffy coach lined with tiny seats, three in a row. Two people facing each other would have their knees touch. Two people sitting next to each other would be in a much more intimate position, pressed into each other like sprats in a can.
I had a window seat and was unlucky enough – which is not even surprising – to have a stout guy land next to me and take up not only his seat, but half of mine as well. To add up, the space that was meant for my legs was occupied by a radiator. I put my left leg on a radiator and pretended I was comfortable enough. Oh, and have I mentioned that I also had a huge bouquet of flowers that I bought in Moscow because mom was to meet me at the platform? That laid on my lap, right on my bag. The floor looked to dirty to put anything there.
The stout guy pissed me off. He was too much for my personal space. Besides, he was too warm, and the coach was hot enough on its own. A lady that sat next to him contributed by hanging her old puffy coat on a hanger right above my head so that its skirt almost brushed my face. It smelled like dust. I pulled a curtain from the window and covered the coat. The greenish curtain looked cleaner than the coat.
I dug into my book and was immensely relieved when after about half an hour the stout young man left to never return. Mayhaps he got an upgrade. The conductor did walk down the coach offering an upgrade, “for a moderate fee”. I thought of it and decided that I was too lazy to move now. The lady, with a dry face and a headscarf, pulled out her prayer book and started what seemed her daily exercise. Poor godly woman, the reading must’ve been so fascinating that she went dozing in a few minutes and soon was rocking towards me, probably in search for a shoulder to rest upon. Not that I have anything against shoulder reposes, I just wasn’t in the mood for being one. I put my bag to my right so that the lady leaned on it it, and went back to my book. It was McCarthy’s “The Road” and at the time it seemed very appropriate.
I walked out at my stop. The train only stopped there for a minute, so I was out of the couch in a blink of an eye, and the chilly wind that met me on the platform was a welcome change. Unfortunately, no one else was there for me. I waited for ten minutes and then called. The day just wasn’t going that well. I wasn’t feeling well either. And the roaming fees in Tver are ridiculous. “Oh, – said my mom when she picked up, – we got caught up on the set, so just walk out and catch a route bus to the embankment!”
What bus? She didn’t know. I walked down the empty platform and into the small station building, looking old and decrepit. The electric tabloids with train schedules struck a strange contrast. I left the station and I was in an undercrossing. I picked one way to go, and it was wrong; so I was told by a girl my age with a puppy in her arms. There was a mini scene when some guy on a bike approached the stairs, saw the girl and her friend, picked his bike and ran away. The girls started laughing hysterically. They seemed to have waited for him. I shrugged and hurried to the other side of the tunnel.
None of the locals were able to tell me which route bus went to the embankment. I had the name – Stepan Razin embankment – but no one knew where it was, and I wasn’t familiar enough with Tver geography. Later on it turned out that it was just the other side of the river which split the city in two halves. But it wasn’t the side that was the city center so no one knew.
I walked to the route bus station and peeked around. I definitely didn’t fit in with my dark, too-European outfit. What locals wore was lots of glitter, unmatching colors and weird shapes and bright makeup. I would call the style vulgar. But it was all too common for Russian cities that were not Moscow or St. Petersburg.
Gypsy cabs were sneaking around, but I wasn’t going to risk it in a stranger city. Route buses and cabs both looked like they were going to fall apart. A yellow tram crawled down the tracks, so old and shabby as if it was soon to die of old age. I was confused.
The locals figured out I wasn’t one of them straight away, so they held a council to figure how I should get to the embankment. The verdict was that I had to take a cab. Those were cheap – $5-7 per ride – but I still didn’t feel like it. I thanked the attentive locals and called my mom again, which devoured another sum of my phone money. They were just driving into the city. I was tired, sick and hungry. Hangry. “Well, why don’t you then just drive a few miles more and pick me up here?”
I crossed the road and spotted a McDonalds. It looked a torch of civilization. A city with a McDonalds can’t be that bad after all, can it?
I was trying to breathe slower. The air was so full of dust it was suffocating in times. Each car passing by woke a cloud of dust. Why so much dust?
I kept scanning the surroundings. Lots of men were walking around dressed like “gopniki”, something we call low-scale criminals. But it’s just the clothing – floppy Adidas pants with two white stripes on each side, caps, leather jackets. I started wondering when I became so judgmental. That’s what megapolis living does to you. I scolded myself for that. That wasn’t like me.
I was standing there with my poor bouquet of flowers. I wasn’t fitting in. It’s jarring not to be able to fit in, because that’s what I usually try to do when I travel. At last, my mom picked me up – thank heavens the set driver wasn’t busy then.
The apartment the crew rent for her was surprisingly nice, even that it sat on top of a five-storey building with no elevators. I wanted food, so we went out to get some. I was shocked to see the roads by the house – huge holes in the asphalt filled with mud and dirt. That’s something you don’t see in the capital. I remember the holes by our old house in Saint Petersburg, but even they were mended in their time.
The neighborhood itself looked very empty. It was so quiet, and I wasn’t used to it. To the quiet. We walked to some restaurant, the only one in the area, and sat down to dinner. Their sushi cost about 40% more than in Moscow. Distance! Not that I wanted any of their sushi.
We got our meals, and then my mom’s director and cameraman joined us. They ordered a bottle of vodka straight away. A day of non-stop filming would do that to you.
The waiter was an interesting character to observe. He was a young guy who obviously wasn’t on the job for a long time and did everything twice as fast and well as a seasoned waiter would. He was always on the run, eager to please the guests. The director looked at him and he knew the character at once. He asked for the boy’s name and then ordered him around in familiar and fatherly tone. The boy felt the weight of responsibility on his shoulders and started running around even more eagerly. It was fun to watch. He got a good tip, though. And the bill itself surprised me: a dinner for four people, with appetizers, drinks and all, cost us just over a hundred dollars. Compared to Moscow, Tver was inexpensive.
The next day my mom had a mini-vacation, as she put it – she never had a day all for herself in these last three months. It was her birthday too, which she didn’t expect to spend pleasantly until a shooting suddenly fell apart for the day. So we went to the local botanical garden. Such a small thing, yet so much love put into it! The entrance was dirt cheap – less than two dollars. We walked around, through the pines and the mosses and the ferns, through their “Secret Garden” and through artsy arches made of dry chunks of wood. There was a “hedgehog house” and a sideboard with old teacups and pots, a frayed allegory on Alice’s Tea Party. An old willow-tree leaned towards the pond, so covered in duckweed that the ducks left trails on the muddy water as they moved, painting the pond with sharp strokes of their flippers. The colors were very Monet-ish.
We thanked the garden keepers and walked out. Right next to the garden stood a mansion, a real mansion across from the block houses – only of very poor taste. But someone wanted a mansion, and he got it.
We strolled across the bridge above the Volga river to the central part of the city. The sweetish smell of dust stood in the air. I was drowsy and I needed coffee. Tver wasn’t full of coffeeshops, but we soon found a tiny stand in the corner of a mobile store.
The barista was a full-bodied woman with easy air and a kind smile. She was obviously bored sitting there all day, and we looked like aliens, so she struck a conversation. I love that about Russians from outside of big cities: they have that simple curiosity about them, and they’re not at all shy to ask questions. The barista told us she was looking forward to moving her family to Moscow. “There’s nothing out here, no place to grow”, – she said. “All the young people are leaving”.
She made me a wonderful almond cappuccino, and I tried to remember when a cafe worker paid so much attention to me the last time, but failed.
Mom walked me around. The city center still was deprived of people. There was an old tram wagon in the middle of the local Broadway, Trekhsvyatskaya street, where a flower shop has settled. A local bread factory store with moving figurines in the windows that somehow looked very Italian. A few cafes. A shopping mall. Not much to look at, to be honest. But we found a wonderful French style cafe, furnished with great taste, and where food quality and pricing had a pleasant balance.
The city center was full of old wooden buildings dating XVIII-XIX. They were all in poor state, with boarded up windows and doorways and weeds growing through the porches. Mom said that they were to be demolished, but when the locals heard of it they paid bribes to get registered there so that they would get free housing after the demolition. In the end, so many people got their registration that the demolition never happened because there was no place to put all those people.
There wasn’t much else to see in Tver. The theatre, the philharmonic, the city park with a few rides including a ferry wheel so moderately sized that I could climb it easily for all my fear of heights. The boats would cruise up and down the river, taking curious tourists along the old Russian cities. A few working fountains, surprising for a city with such little budget that they couldn’t fix their own roads. Some Italian-style houses with cracking paint and crushing stone. A forlorn, once beautiful riverside station. A lot of churches. It all was a change, though, a change from the big busy city. We slowly walked around, and I had time to look and see, thoroughly, in a cinematographic sort of way, as if through a camera lens. I caught myself doing that quite frequently after the ship.
On my way back to Moscow the next day I made up my mind to get an upgrade, no matter how much it would cost. My determination increased when I walked into the train car and saw a few dead drunk men rushing through the doors to get a quick smoke. They stunk of cheap alcohol and cigarettes, and I waited patiently by the door while the conductor was trying to push them back inside. “I said get in right now you all, the train is leaving! The train is leaving I said, cigarettes out! Now!!” – he yelled at them, and one by one, they retreated. I smiled at him politely and asked if there was any chance to pay a little extra and sit in a better couch.
The man was all businesslike. He brushed his mustache, then pointed at the door to the next coach and said: “Go there, to that lady. Tell her Anatoly sent you”. I approached the lady, and five minutes and $13 later I had half a coach all to myself (it was precisely half-empty, and with much fewer seats). The peace and quiet and the big reclining seat were divine. The lady was in her fifties, looking tired, but each time she walked by she asked if I was comfortable enough, and apologized for the chill in the coach. I was great. I had a woolen coat, and the chill was so much better than the stagnant air of the regular coach. I finished my book there.
When I got home, it seemed that I never went anywhere at all. It was a short adventure, and as soon as it was over my body succumbed to cold. Funny that I never get sick on the road, only at home.
Here’s my advice to all who come to visit Moscow: if you want to see Russia that’s closer to reality, go to Tver, or Yaroslavl, or some other smaller city outside the capital’s limits. It will give you a much better perspective on how this country lives, and will take away many romantic notions about Russian everyday life. Vodka and bears may or may not be detected.