Ich bin ein Berliner (Part 3)

I had that incredibly breathtaking moment. I had tears coming to my eyes when we were driving past Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral). It was stunningly beautiful! I was thrilled to get off the bus and take a closer look at this phenomenal piece of architecture.
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For a moment after I saw double-decker buses, I thought I was in London. Berlin is certainly one of the major tourist spots in Europe but it didn’t feel like it was too crowded, which made my stay there so enjoyable and liberating. First we went on a short tour of Hackesche Hofe which is a fancy courtyard complex with a lovely tranquil atmosphere. It looked so classy and European. I was picturing people coming here for a cup of coffee to take in the atmosphere of the place. There were lots and lots of shops but we were pressed for time as always.
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Our next quick stop was Deutsches Historisches Museum (The German Historical Museum). It was a shame we didn’t get a chance to visit any of the exhibitions but the hall of the museum was large and beautiful. We got our first souvenirs there as we were waiting on the rest of the group. To my surprise, I felt comfortable speaking a bit of German with a sales assistant. I was happy to embrace this truly European country.
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I loved the way people passing by looked like. They had a nice fashion sense. We were having a walk along the bank of Spree when we approached the Berlin cathedral which survived the destruction of WWII. It was truly phenomenal! It bore resemblance to Isakiev’s cathedral in St. Petersburg which is one of the cities in Russia that are definitely worth a visit. But I haven’t been there yet. The cathedral looked spectacular and it was another moment when I wished the time had stopped. There were amazing picture opportunities as well.
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Berlin is home to a great number of museums. Berlin’s Museuminsel (Museum Island) is a one-off collection of amazing museums. Visiting them is a huge treat to art enthusiasts. Actually, there is something for everyone in this city. This is where we were at the moment. We took some pictures of Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery), Altes Museum (Old Museum), the Bode Museum, the Pergamon Museum. Being in this completely different part of the city made my heart glow. Before we headed off to Potsdam, we had these two iconic landmarks of Berlin to visit.
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We also took a short walk along Unter den Linden and stopped at Humboldt University where we saw lots of books on sale at 3 Euro each. I was tempted to buy one but there was no time to decide so I ended up buying none. But it was an honor to be there as Humboldt made a great contribution to linguistics as we know it now.
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The first defining sight of Berlin is the Reichstag building. This is where Soviet soldiers flew our flag in May 1945. That was a massive imposing building with lots of history. The view made me more keen and enthusiastic about improving my German, I was on a high as if I had just seen Big Ben in London. It was funny that I got to see the Reichstag (German was minor) but I’ve never got to see Big Ben yet. That was another moment to capture and remember. There was no other way for me rather than to capture the view with my mind as my camera had died by the time we got there. The next time I’m in Berlin I know the first thing I will do is to my book a visit to the dome to see the German parliament at work.
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We were short of time and had about ten minutes to go take a quick look at Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) which was just across the park. We were scared we might get lost as there was no time to lose and decided to ask someone for directions. My friend was brave enough to speak up but ironically, this man we addressed turned out to be American and didn’t understand any German. He started talking in English and for an instant it felt as if neither me nor my friend had a degree in English as our minds went totally blank as we didn’t know what the English for Brandenburger Tor was. But he was faster to understand us and we finally made our way to what to many people was actually Berlin. The place was touristy but it didn’t feel too crowded. The gate was pretty small and not quite what I pictured but I had to struggle taking a picture of it. Unfortunately, taking a couple of pictures is all we had time for as we were to meet our group to head off to Potsdam. Later last year as I saw my favourite band perform at the Brandenbur Gate on New’s Year I was proud I have been there and was sure to say that a visit there was the highlight of my year.
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As we were leaving for Potsdam, we caught a glimpse of the imposing building of the Russian embassy, Tiergarten (they say it is the equivalent of Hyde Park in London), Sigesaule (Victory Column)…
After we came back from Potsdam (which is going to be a different story), we had a couple more hours to spend in Berlin. We had a typical German meal at Kurfurstendamm which is one of the most famous shopping venues in the city. As we were through, we finally had some time to ourselves. It would be a crime not to go on a bit of a shopping spree and enjoy the ultimate shopping experience Berlin style. We also did some souvenir shopping but I already had my cuddly bear which I got in Potsdam as I feared I would have no time for that when we get back. I was loving the vibe, the people and didn’t want to say goodbye. We had some more time to take some more pictures as we approached the Zoo. As I was posing, I had some man shouting out something to me out of his car… I wish my German was better because I will never know what it was… I hope it wasn’t something inappropriate after all… We also had a quick chat with some of the Zoo staff as my friend was eager to have a picture taken with. She said she couldn’t leave without taking a piсture of a German but this man was obviously Turkish but never mind…
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Berlin is such a complex and controversial city which lives a life of its own. I think this king named Friedrich der Grosse (Frederick the Great) whose resting place we visited in Potsdam really described Berlin as we know it now. He had a huge love for art and romance but later in life emerged as a great warrior. I believe that these two opposites describe Berlin and all people no matter where we are in the world. As I was leaving, I wanted to say what U.S. President John F. Kennedy famously said as he came here on a visit in 1963 (even though it was meant as a protest against the Soviet Union policy). He said “All — All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner.” (I am a Berliner). I felt free and happy and wanted to scream out loud (in Berlin you are free to do whatever you please) “Ich bin ein Berliner”. The next stop was Dresden.

Ich bin ein Berliner (Part 2)

As we were driving further into East Berlin, I was being amazed by the tranquility of this part of Berlin that used to be socialistic back in the day. As tranquil and serene as it was, with a few people enjoying a brisk morning run or a leisurely ride on a bicycle (which made my friend incredibly jealous of Berliners having such a lovely environment-friendly means of transport), I could feel something socialistic linger in the air (when you were born in the USSR, you know a socialistic thing when you see it). I was under the impression that this part of Berlin was a thriving construction site, with buildings being demolished and new ones emerging at an increasingly rapid pace. It felt as if Berliners were making a mammoth effort to move on from its horrific past when this gorgeous city was oppressively divided into two parts by a formidable barrier that we were to see later on our trip.

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Another wonderful piece of architecture came to my attention as we were driving past the Eisenbrücke. That was a memorial of the Molecule Man that commemorates the reunification of Berlin’s two parts. It was a 30-m aluminium statue which features triangulated men facing each other with hands joined in the middle. Only a closer observation reveals that there are actually three men because when you’re looking at it a longer way off, it seems like there are only two. Russian tourists have a running joke of calling this monument “A Party for Three”. This was one of the moments when quirkiness and ingenuity of Berlin struck me as the idea behind that monument was that this tiny molecules or holes, as the architect who designed the monument put it, represented people coming together to create unique things.
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People in East Berlin seemed friendly and cheerful. As we stopped at the lights, we effortlessly caught the eye of some construction workers who seemed to be enjoying a break from work. When they saw me and my friend, they raised a bottle of lovely German beer to us. I was a bit embarrassed by this gesture but that made surely my Berlin experience more authentic and memorable.
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It didn’t seem long before this array of ruins and newly designed high-rise buildings led us into the Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall). This is another must-visit in Berlin. It didn’t look as I had expected it would. I thought this would be a massive concrete wall that would convey the scale of pain suffered by Berliners as this structure emerged in 1961and tore families and loved ones apart. In a documentary I saw on Berlin I heard countless heart-wrenching stories of people dealing with the oppression and pain caused by this horrendous division. What was a poignant and lasting reminder of Berlin’s dark past was a thin wall (it seemed just as high as the one I see out of my window back home). We saw the section along the river Spree opposite the O2 arena (this was where I first met a lovely cuddly symbol of Berlin – a bear). Actually, two similarly pronounced words – beer and bear – sum up Berlin. I enjoyed all the pieces of art but to me they were looked as if they were inspired by tremendous pain felt by people coming here from around the world. Later, we came across chunks of this wall on sale in many souvenir shops but I couldn’t quite believe those were real ones. We were so excited by these quirky pieces of art that we were astonished to find out it wasn’t against the law to write our names on it, which we sure did. I was sad to hear about the plans to take this wall down. It just didn’t seem right to demolish what came to signify a huge part of Berlin’s history and was there for almost thirty years. I also had plans to come back here again to see if our names were still there.
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Our autographs on the Berlin Wall
We made our way further into what was one of the main hubs of East Berlin. That was Alexanderplatz. Here we saw a brick building of Red City Hall (Rotes Rathaus), the Neptune fountain and the Ferhsehturm (TV tower) which was so massive that I had to look up really really high to take a picture. I was almost dizzy with excitement and joy. This tower dominates the city’s skyline and is visible from many areas. It was now time to go to West Berlin. I was wondering if it was going to be a big change from what we saw here in East Berlin. I felt so in touch with this country and especially its language as I was reading the signs, advertisements… They all seemed pretty clear. This city struck me as truly lacking a structure of any kind but this fact obviously lent it some charming appeal. I think at that moment I had no clue where we were going. West Berlin seemed to have a bit of a structure to it, though there were also construction sites everywhere. This part of the city was home to some really iconic images of Berlin which I was looking forward to seeing later that day.
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Ich bin ein Berliner (Part 1)

The next morning we were ready to get back on the road and head off to Berlin. That was a brand new day and a brand new country. I was much excited on that brisk morning and hated to say goodbye to Poland but I knew I was going to be back at the end of my trip. I couldn’t wait to experience Germany. The fact that I did German as my minor at the University added to my excitement.
So we hit the road again. As the night before we were staying at the hotel near the Poland-Germany border, German was just about 10 minutes’ drive away. When I saw a German autobahn sign, I knew it was time to have a ride German style. Everything around us seemed to be clean and well looked after. Germans are generally famous for loving Ordnung (order). I was bubbling over with excitement as I saw signs for Berlin. The German language seemed so easy to read (which is obviously not true) after spending the previous day in futile attempts to figure out quirky Polish words. It felt that I was more at home here in terms of the language which I’m sure can make or break a trip. I was thrilled to get a chance to practise my German (which proved to be not as easy as it seemed at that moment as we were enjoying our ride on the pristine German Autobahn). Needless to say, this road was a far cry from what we have in Russia.
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During the course of my trip, I made a point of taking these drives in between the cities and countries as a chance to reflect on things. On my way to Berlin, I started contemplating history again. There was something that enhanced my sense of national identity and made me want to embrace what I am (Russian) as I was about to arrive in Berlin. We might be all just a sum of experiences of our ancestors because at that moment I couldn’t help but wonder what it felt like for Russian soldiers making their way here for the final battle of Berlin in 1945. Even though people of my generation are becoming increasingly ignorant of WWII (or what we call the Great Patriotic War here), one will make no mistake in saying that what started as Operation Barbarossa in 1941 and gave rise to what the generations to come would know as the most genocidal and bloodiest conflict in history, still lingers in this country. A Russian must have a heart of stone not having this page in history resonating in them. I know there’s so much controversy surrounding this war and its picture is not black and white as we might like to think. Some people in the West say this Battle of Berlin which ended with Soviet soldiers hoisting the Soviet flag over the Reichstag (German Parliament) was the case of one totalitarianism trampling over another.
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Unfortunately we can’t go back in time and resolve the issues people have been hugely divided on since the day that iconic image of those soldiers flying the Soviet flag over the Reichstag was published in Soviet newspapers. My perspective of this war can be largely subjective and biased as I was born and brought up in the country deeply affected by the Nazi regime. I guess there’s something in my DNA that makes me want to hold on to the belief that it was the Soviet Union that led the way in overthrowing this vicious and deadly regime. We know for a fact that there wasn’t one family unscathed by the war and millions of people were killed or starved in concentration camps. My family was also affected as my great great grandfather was brutally shot by Nazis as he was too poor and frail to leave his village when the Nazis seized it. As much as I resent Stalin as a leader (even though I know my granddad was shocked at the news of his death in 1953 and had the leader’s portrait in his hands with tears running down his cheeks), I’m genuinely outraged at attempts to equate Stalin and Hitler, which I think is a blow to all people in this country. With the Russian casualties in mind, how can one possibly have debates over who started the war which was a “crime against humanity”? I know there were atrocities perpetrated by our soldiers as they encircled and shelled the city of Berlin in 1945. But again with all the atrocities in mind, can one truly blame them for doing bad things which were obviously in the name of a good cause?
I was happy in the knowledge that there will be no shelling or bombing as another group of Russian tourists make their way into this city. This trip to Berlin sparked a flurry of questions in me. Which is more, I knew our first stop would be the Treptower Park with one of the largest Soviet memorials in Berlin that commemorates the death of thousands of Soviet people in the battle of Berlin. This is definitely a must visit for any Russian coming to Berlin. I never knew I would feel the way I felt when I entered the park. It was like a perfect pristine piece of Russia along the Spree River.
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The atmosphere was somber and calm and as it was early morning, we had the park to ourselves. I physically felt proud to be Russian as I was standing looking at a remote 70-ton bronze statue of a Soviet soldier holding a German girl in one hand and a sword slashing swastika under his feet in the other and the monument of mother Russia on the left. This memorial was also home to bodies of thousands of soldiers killed in the bloodshed of 1945. The enormity of the park was breathtaking and I got really emotional and incredulous to believe I was actually in Berlin. For a moment I thought Germans were probably bigger in this conflict as the construction of this monument showed the dignity with which they dealt with their Nazi past. At the end of the day, it all comes down to learning from the mistakes of the past and acknowledging them. I was wondering if what we saw in front of our eyes was the German’s way of saying sorry for what had happened years and years before.
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This fondly maintained area, beautifully landscaped trees made me want to whisper (I couldn’t dare to scream so as not to break the peace and quiet of the place) that the apology (was it the whole nation that had to say sorry in the first place?) was taken and it was time we put this all behind us and moved on paying tribute to millions of people of different nationalities who were killed in the war. It was a shame that we were given so little time to spend here as we had so many other places we needed to see in the space of one day. My limbs went literally numb as I wished I could make the world stop spinning and stand there taking in the lovely peaceful sky gliding over this magnificent grand monument. I wish every Russian had a chance to come here just once to pay tribute to the enormous sacrifice made by our ancestors. I wished the time would stop. With all those birches around, I actually started missing Russia, yet at the same time no matter how many miles we travelled from our home country, a part of it was right there in front of us. Before we had to leave (luckily, we had enough time to actually get to the foot of the main monument which seemed a long way off as we entered the park), I turned back again to capture what to me as a Russian was more than just a magnificent piece of architecture in case I never get to come here again. Such was my first encounter of Berlin.
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Bardzo mi miło Polska (Nice to Meet you, Poland) Part 2

As we were driving through the Polish countryside and were on our way to Warsaw, I kept thinking about Russia and Poland. The history of Russia-Poland relations was known to be one of a lot of conflict, war, resentment, finger-pointing… It is the long-standing conflict of the Orthodox and Catholic Church, uprisings with Poland trying to regain independence from the Russian empire, countless backlashes during the communist era, the Katyan massacre (a brutal murder of thousands of Polish nationals) during the World War II, repressions, a plane crush of 2010 in which all members of Polish political elite were killed… All these thoughts kept gnawing at me as we were making our way to Warsaw. The bottom line is whatever it was that made us drift apart regardless of our Slavonic identity and whoever is to be held responsible for that, I think it is about time that we all moved on and forgave each other past wrongs. The very fact that we were in that country was indicative of our will to stick together and put aside differences instead of holding a grudge. I think among all European countries Poland should be closest to us because it is new to the European community and is a Slavic country after all.
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So here we were in the capital of Poland. That was a dreary day, the sky was persistently grey. I tried to put the thoughts about the World War II behind me. Growing up, I took a huge interest in the history of this war. As we were driving into Warsaw which looked pretty calm, the tour guide was telling us about a dire economic situation in Poland, about mortgage rates, unemployment…
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I think by doing so she intended to get us to understand that we were not worst off and even though Poland now joined Western Institutions like NATO and the European Union, they were still having a hard time. To me, even though it was an economic hub, Warsaw looked then like a post-Soviet city and it wasn’t European as my Mum who was on a visit here some thirty years ago rightfully said. There was some Soviet air lingering around and I was still engaging in comparisons between Russia and Poland.
We were on our way to what was the highlight of our short stay in Warsaw. We were to take a tour of the Royal Castle Square (plac Zamkowy). It is a meeting point and one of the most famous tourist spots in the Polish capital. Warsaw is called the “phoenix city” because it has survived many wars and was demolished during the World War II and was painstakingly and meticulously restored in the years to follow.

A story of a man who was our guide (pan Kshishtof, sorry if I misspell his name) in Warsaw was in a way similar to that of the city. I was surprised when I saw him. He looked like a man from a fairytale dressed in some strange outfit. He spoke good Russian which I couldn’t help but admire. I really love it when people from other countries take their time to learn our language, no matter how hard it is believed to be. Unlike some English-speaking people, I would never take a mickey of a person’s accent or grammar… It always feels nice that people still bother to learn our complex language. It makes me feel incredibly patriotic to hear people from abroad speak my language… So later on, our tour guide said that this man was over 70 (he didn’t look it) and he lost his parents during the war when he was young. He now led a very healthy lifestyle and always went for a run, rain or shine. So it was this man and his native city that have been through so much pain but got over it and survived. SAM_6943
So this man had a little time (only 1.5 hours) to show us around but I know if time permitted he could go on and on till after dark. He seemed to be totally in love with his city.
First, we enjoyed some views of the Vistula River (the largest river in Poland).
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Also there was the National Stadium which was one of the venues of Euro 2012 (I’m a football fan and it was a privilege to be seeing it).
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As a person with a teacher degree, I was astonished to find a Teacher monument. I loved the interpretation of what a teacher’s job was like.
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So here we were in the middle of Warsaw. On our right we had the Royal Castle. It has a dull brick exterior but it is of course of huge historical importance. Unfortunately, we had no time to get inside. This square looked just like it was in one of the cards my Mum brought from her trip here. I was proud to relive this for her.

I kept staring at the imposing column of King Sigismund III Vasa from 1644. It was the King who moved the court from Krakow to Warsaw in the 16th century. It is the oldest monument of the city.
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I noticed that all the buildings in the square were colored differently. As it turns out, back in the day houses had no numbers so they used colors to tell one house from another.
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We were moving further to the barbican on the cobblestone pavement as the guide was telling us about the history of the buildings. There were some locals walking their dogs too. I loved that the place didn’t seem too touristy and wasn’t too crowded. Just standing there and looking at all those buildings was overwhelmingly great! It was so educational which made it so much more worthwhile!SAM_6953
The square is lined with some lovely European-looking cafes, souvenir shops. By then, we were given some time to get some souvenirs. Getting my head around the prices was a bit easier this time around. Now I have a magnet from Warsaw. It was the first one in my collection. I also got hold of some cards which were on display and seemed to be free. I never knew whether they were really. I hope either way, the Poles won’t spare me that…
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Also I learnt a little story about the mermaid (syrenka) which is a symbol of the city. A legend has it that there were originally two mermaids who went on a journey of the oceans and the seas. One of them decided to stay at the coast of Denmark and the other one reached the Vistula River. I loved that story and made a wish to see the other mermaid in Denmark too.
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We had a chance to get inside St. John’s Archcathedral. I’d never been to a Catholic church before and it was a really spiritual experience. Being there felt much more comfortable than being in an Orthodox church. It was more liberating and less suppressing.SAM_6956
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As we were walking near the barbican which used to be a historic fortification, we saw some old Poles basking in the sun (the weather changed for us by then). One lady from our group tried to say to them something like “Hi, Russia”! Basically she was making a fool of herself but the Poles smiled at her. Hopefully she didn’t ruin the image of Russia which they might still resent.
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It was almost time to say goodbye to our guide and the wonderful strong city of Warsaw. We got on our coach and were leaving the city wishing to go back here for a longer stay. At least we got a little idea of Old Town (Stare Miasto) (this is the part we were to).
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We were 7 or 8 hours’ drive away from the hotel in the town of Słubice near the German border. Before that we stopped for a meal at a café outside Warsaw to try some żurek which is a typically Polish soup and some other delicious food.
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It was a long drive to Słubice and there were just haystacks and fields that looked a bit duller than those that we saw as we set out in Poland. It was a long busy day and after two nights in a row we spent enjoying the “romance” of a train travel, we needed some good night’s sleep before we hit Berlin the next day. Staying at a hotel was nice. All we needed was a shower and a bed to sleep in. I was so sleepy by the time I hit the sack but I stayed awake a little longer to have a listen to some radio. It felt incredibly surreal to be lying there in this comfortable bed in Poland and listen to a German radio station. It was perfect! Berlin, here we come!

Almost there and Bardzo mi miło, Polska (Nice to Meet you, Poland), Part 1

So now it was all about crossing the Belarus-Poland border where we were to have our documents and luggage (so we thought) inspected. We went through two border checkpoints. Before we got to the first one, the tour guide walked us through some rules and tips we ought to know. I felt like a kid again and all I knew was that I needed to keep out of mischief. I was under the impression that Europe was a place with lots of rules of its own and we were not welcome there. Now looking back, I understand she did a good thing putting her foot down and trying to scare us like small kids because that way we didn’t get our hopes too high and ended up having the best of the time. On top of that, everyone was good and stayed safe through the course of the trip. She knew all too well that people on vacation get too carried away and do things that can compromise their safety. I thought it would be a terrifying experience with each of us getting out of a bus hands up to get searched and scanned. It would be humiliating to have a customs officer go through my bag but otherwise I won’t be able to enter the European Union. The good thing about having a Schengen visa is that you can travel in and out of the Schengen area (which comprises over twenty countries) with no border controls. Only later on did we find that out. I pictured a border check scene to be one from a Nazi movie but it all turned out to be quick and peaceful. No one bothered to go through our bags. In both cases customs officers took a look at the luggage department of the coach to make sure there were no people or hazardous objects in there. Then another customs officer came into the coach to get our passports and then we received our passport stamps. The whole procedure wasn’t as lengthy as I thought it would be. We were off to a good start. I kept looking at the stamps at my passport still incredulous we were now minutes away from entering the European Union. It now seemed to be in an easily walking distance. Isn’t that funny that all these borders are just human-made? This is people mostly that made what is across the border different from what we are used to on the other side of it. We just had the border river Bug to cross and here we were… It was all just a little formality. It was just a fact of reality, not a dream I’d been fascinated by until then.
So then the tour guide announced we were now officially in Poland!!! This was it! Goodbye for now, Russia! Hope you don’t miss us much (I know you won’t!). Now I focused on looking out the window (which became my habit through the course of the trip and made my neck a bit sore) to work out what was different from Russia. We saw fields all around us (that looked a lot like Russia).
Our first stop was a shop just some minutes’ drive away from the border. The Polish for “shop” is “sklep” which in Russian means “tomb”. It might be a gruesome experience. There we would be able to get some food to get us by during the trip (we were not allowed to bring any milk or meat from Russia).SAM_1499
In fact no one cared and the only reason people weren’t bringing these with them is that we may get a food poisoning if they had some milk or meat after carrying it around with them for two days. Russians are not particularly big on food but we do love to have much in supply. I believe it goes back to the time when people in this country had to starve during and in the aftermath of countless wars so they essentially needed some food to see them through just in case. It is something that we do even if we (like myself) were lucky to be born long after the World War II was over. But I do remember having not much food in the house in the early 90s when the country was experiencing major economic problems. I felt as if I was reliving this time when our group (about 40 people) walked into the shop. People wanted to get their hands on everything they could as if there was no tomorrow and tomorrow there will be no more food left in the world. I think there is something that we do when we are shopping that makes people in the country we are in know, beyond any doubt, that we are from Russia. I struggled to get my head around the prices (I knew I had to multiply everything by 12 – this way I knew how much an item would cost in roubles). All the food looked quite familiar and ordinary. The other people from the group were grabbing endless bottles of drinking water because it was cheap here and we will need water to keep us hydrated when we are out on excursion. We decided we would just run it into a bottle at the hotels we would be staying at. We didn’t feel like a part of this shopping frenzy. We just got some ham (it was put in a special package so that it stayed fresh extra long), cheese, chocolate, bread and juice. It was still funny to be looking at these quirky Polish letters on packages (I knew I would keep at least one to satisfy the linguist in me). After that we went to a cash register to pay for the food. I looked at Polish cashiers to take in their faces (there were one of the first Polish people I encountered). Happily, they weren’t that curious and kept their cool as they were expected to. My friend came first and I was after her in the queue. As the cashier was ringing up my purchase, my friend started taking some of my items along with the rest of hers. The cashier said something (the only word I caught was “Pani” which is a formal way of addressing a lady in Poland). This is then it dawned on me I had no words (shame on it, what kind of a teacher am I?) to explain to her that it was ok and Masha wasn’t committing a robbery after all. But somehow she understood and so did my friend. Gosh, I wish I was in Russia then! Being abroad for the first time proved to be a challenge. I could hear some familiar words as she told me the total (everyone seems to understand each other all around the world when it comes to money). And here I was! I felt an absolute failure and loser as I understood I totally forgot how to say “Thank you!” in Polish. I remember practicing that one on the train just yesterday. It was “Dziękuję” (I remember it was similar to the English “Thank you!). I think nerves just kicked in and I felt like I was sitting an exam. It was my first international face-to-face encounter. I felt so ashamed of my ignorance so instead of trying to be polite, I just nodded and left. At the other cash register my sister was given some free candies for saying “Dziękuję” (she did some Polish back at the University). This was my lesson to learn so I made a promise to myself I would be more focused and less nervous.
So after everyone was here (we were given about an hour for shopping and everything – we grew accustomed to time restrictions later on) and the tour guide made sure no one was left behind, kidnapped or lost track of the time (we set our clocks back by two hours). We hit the road again, we were Warsaw bound. We were enjoying our Polish food (especially the juice, it was simply delicious!) and listening to some radio station the tour guide was playing for us. It was a wholly new life experience sitting there counting the złoty (Polish currency), tuning in to Polish radio stations in my MP3 player and trying to figure out some familiar words.
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My telephone said I was in Poland – great!!! I texted my Mum to say we were now in Poland and were having a good time abroad.
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We looked at fields, haystacks, cows (for the first time in my life I saw a black one!), very nice comfy houses. The tour guide said Poles were known to be wonderful housekeepers. That was true indeed. Every inch of land was meticulously looked after.
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I also enjoyed thujas. These are lovely trees that we don’t have much in Russia.
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This is how Poles are fundamentally different from Russians despite being so close geographically. I loved statues of Virgin Mary or Catholic saints placed close to the road. Some of them were decorated with streams and ribbons. This tradition turned out to go back to pagan times before Poland was converted to Catholicism. I’m not religious but I found it truly amazing and homey. It was raining, but it made the whole experience even more authentic and enjoyable. It was a perfect countryside – lovely houses, swimming pools… I imagined this is what we could have been if we had tried a bit harder and laziness wasn’t in our DNA. Polish advertisement, Polish radio, Polish food – I was ready to embrace Poland…
We were on the road for 3 hours before we reached Warsaw. I was buzzing with excitement! It felt incredible to be able to see more of the world which became so much wider within the matter of hours…
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Getting there

GETTING THERE
Before we bid goodbye to Moscow, we needed to meet our tour guide and fellow travelers. We knew our train for Brest was leaving at 15.40 and we were all supposed to meet at 15.00. The last thing we wanted was to be late so we came to the train station a bit earlier. All sweaty and sticky, we had been hanging around the platform since 14.00 hoping the tour guide would show up earlier because the station was getting crowded and it would take her a while to make sure everyone was here.
We were looking at other people at the platform in a bit of puzzlement wondering whether those were the people to keep us company throughout the upcoming trip. There were going to be a lot of people on the train for Brest and only 40 of them were our fellow passengers. We were hoping we would be travelling with some quiet intellectuals because another last thing we wanted was a bunch of disorderly individuals that would totally ruin this dream trip. That seemed like a scene from a detective story – us looking passers-by up and down speculating on whether they could be people going on a coach trip with us. What if they all got cold feet (like before a wedding) and stayed home and we will be travelling on our own? This might sound like a perfect trip – we were up for it! I’m not very social so I’d love to mix only with my sister and friend without having to engage in some small talk with people I don’t know.
It was 14.50 already but the guide was nowhere to be seen. I saw a picture of her on the website of the travel agency we booked with but ironically she was wearing sun glasses in it, so the only thing I knew about her is that she was slim and blonde. The picture might have been from a while ago and by then she could have dyed her hair black and gained a considerable amount of weight. It would take a discerning eye of Watson and Holmes to identify this lady. She had all essential documents (passport, train tickets) so without her showing up there would be no trip at all. Now it all came down to her. She might have been a bit more punctual and saved us the trouble of sticking around waiting for her to come. To make things even worse, we hadn’t succeeded in identifying any of our fellow travelers. We were told to wait near the first coach and there was nobody around. There were some people looking lost and confused as us but they turned out to be going on another coach trip. Some people were just casually hanging around and by the looks of it, they weren’t looking for anyone. We were done with looking around and playing detectives so we transformed into witches pronouncing curses on the tour guide. We all started into a rant about how misfortunate and miserable we were having our holiday plans wrecked by this one tour guide whose job was to make sure everything was running smoothly instead of leaving us there high and dry.
Now, in hindsight, the whole situation seems utterly ridiculous because she wasn’t late in the first place and it seems funny how it got us on edge. I guess we just wished for the trip to be perfect, it was a dream that we had worked towards for the whole year and this was what got us jittery.
It was 15.00 when a woman who matched what I saw in the photo finally made an appearance (she must have checked her watch against the chimes of the Kuranty in Red Square). Out of the blue, people started crowding outside our coach (there was no way they could have met the tour guide before!) so this was then that we were made sure we wouldn’t be travelling alone. I sized everyone up to see if any of these people would constitute a threat to my dream trip. As I was doing so, I felt a sting of jealousy (I generally have a jealous streak) – I didn’t want all those people there! Instead, I wanted to have Europe all to myself! But anyway, I had to come to terms with the fact I couldn’t afford an individual trip yet so I would have to share my dream with a bunch of strangers (neither of whom hopefully would turn out to be bonkers).
Now that wait and anticipation was over, things seemed to start looking up for us and everything seemed to be as planned. The tour guide called the names of each traveler and gave them all the paperwork. The crowd seemed quite big, which made it feel like there were going to be more than 40 people on the train. I had to make my way through the crowd not to miss our names being called. There was nothing to worry about but Russians love to panic over even small things. It felt as like we were queueing up for some freebie – no one wanted to miss out. After we made sure that all the travelling documents (except for the passports) were there, we were all set to go.
So here it was… Another invasion of privacy (i.e. a sleeper-train trip) began. We weren’t happy to find out we were going to share a compartment with a woman with a four or five year old who looked like a nuisance. The coach was very stuffy but I knew I was strong enough to make it through another trip on a train. As we were already on our way to Brest where we were to arrive 14 hours later, I started reflecting on this short stay in Moscow and texted my Mum about it as long as there was a signal and before we set out far from the capital. The tour guide was walking around the coach giving each passenger individually their passports and providing some instructions on what we need to do after we arrive in Brest. Obviously we had another mountain to climb before we got to Europe. We were to find the coach that would be taking us on your trip. There were supposed to be lots of them near the station in Brest so it might be pretty hard. Seeing a ridiculous picture of me in the Schengen visa made me feel better about that mission. I knew we would be fine…
The way seemed incredibly long. We tried different things to keep us busy but we were soon bored. The only person that kept us entertained was a nuisance girl. I felt like giving her a slap. That should be good fun! I just don’t feel comfortable around loud kids…
Having climbed on our top berths (another mountain to climb), I attempted to learn some basic words and expressions of Polish. My friend joined me and we had a bit of fun pronouncing all these. There is an assumption that Russian and Polish are similar but that is not entirely true (more about it later). We are both language teacher and would feel awkward being in the country without speaking a word of its tongue…
Our phones were going mad with the signal on and off. So we went to get them charged. There was only one socket and we were happy to occupy it. It felt really good and refreshing to be standing there having a chat (about nothing in particular like friends sometimes do) and looking out of the window. We were still in Russia but it was a part of it we had never been to before. The scenery looked different. There were dense woods all around us. I couldn’t believe it was the last of Russia I would be seeing before I come back ten days later. There were some old houses sliding by… We seemed to be halfway between Russia and Poland (where our trip would start). It felt nice to be unaware of what this trip would bring. I wish I could go back to this moment.
There was a long stop in Smolensk so we got out for some fresh air. The station looked really disappointing. Voronezh didn’t seem like a country town to us anymore. The next stop was to be in Belarus. It was getting dark and we had some 7 more hours to go. The next day would the first day of our trip and we needed to get some sleep to get ready for it.
As I was drifting in and out of sleep, I heard the woman and her girl getting off so I knew we were already in Belarus. Even though we were technically in a different country, nothing changed. I tried to look out the window to hear the announcements at the stations we stopped at – they were all in Russian. Belarus was part of what was a huge country till 1991 and it never completely felt like a different state. I was trying to fall back asleep and to quench my linguistic curiosity when one man got in. He was in our compartment where the woman and the girl used to be. It was pretty dark and I didn’t see his face. My friend’s blanket fell off from her top coach and she climbed down to pick it up. The man tried to help her out because it was dark and she was only half awake and he tried to tell her something but she wouldn’t understand. This was when I started contemplating cultural and linguistic differences and letting the thought of being abroad sink in. I was thrilled about it.
Dawn was breaking as we woke up to get cleaned up and dressed. The view from the window was dreary with dense forests and swamps all around. It was still Belarus. I started remembering History classes and Soviet partisans (this is how they called people involved in the resistance movement during the World War II) who were hiding in these woods. I was happy to be in touch with the history of my country but I was looking forward to experiencing Europe which was not a long way off now.
About an hour later we arrived safely in Brest. The bags seemed so hard to carry and I couldn’t wait to put them somewhere. Finding our coach wasn’t that hard and the trip was kicking off right there and then. We were all like a group of kids. The tour guide counted us. Everyone seemed to be here except one person. She had to call the roll only to find out that the first person on the list was the one to be missing. We couldn’t go without him. This was when we experienced the first downside of group travelling when the entire group has to wait on one person. It was kind of annoying. The tour guide was agitated but it wasn’t long before she found the missing person and brought this man of thirty or something into the coach as if he was a small kid. She told him to apologize, which he did. He was now a good boy. We were now ready to go. We needed to be at the Belarus-Polish border as soon as possible not to get stuck there for ages as there were plenty more coaches at the check point.
I was sorry we didn’t have time to visit the Brest Fortress which was awarded the title of Hero Fortress. It is one of the most famous World War II war monuments that commemorate the defense of the frontier stronghold during the first week of the war.

My capital

The way to the dream wasn’t going to be a short one… First we needed to take a train to Moscow which is about 500km away from Voronezh. In the capital we would meet our travelling guide and the rest of the tourists who would join us on our journey. We would then set on a train trip from Moscow to the city of Brest, Belarus which would take us about 14 hours. This is where our coach trip would get underway. If all went as planned, then we would cross the Belarus-Poland border and… would actually be in the dream (i.e. in Europe)…

Actually for me the trip started as we got on a train to Moscow… This was when it finally dawned on me that that was it, there was no way back and what seemed an alluring dream, then a beautiful plan was now my reality… It felt really scary to get on the road, to feel the way travellers do, experience life in the way they do… As I was looking at my city through the windows of the train, I was wondering whether I would be ever coming back again… It wasn’t that I felt homesick before I actually left but the thought of going on such an extensive trip for the first time ever was incredibly overwhelming… Maybe in moments like these you really need to be secure in the knowledge that there is a place where you belong and you would definetely be back whatever trips and journeys life takes you on… Anyway, firsts always feel scary and cause one to think in quirky ways…

I always feel uncomfortable and quirky on trains (which might effect my thinking as well)… I was on a sleeping car only a couple of times and I knew this could well be my least favourite part of the trip… I just hate to be on a sleeper with a bunch of other people… It feels much like an invasion of privacy (in Russia we don’t make much of it, though) with all these people going about their daily routine in the space of a small sleeping car… It might look like the Big Brother Show or something… It’s just something I can’t explain because even though I’m not used to having a lot of space to myself in my day-to-day life, being on a train and sharing this space with other people makes me sick… More like emotionally sick with me having to watch these people and them watching me… It just makes you wonder how fate works bringing together all these different people travelling for their own different reasons… It feels like so many lives and fates are cluttered here… Were we all really meant to be at the same time in the same place like that?

So our trip officially started as the train set in motion… The only thing I like about trains is to hear the sound of a train’s wheels touching the rails… This rumbling sound alone is so serene and calm and so Russian to me… (I know it should be pretty much the same in the rest of the world)… So here we were listening to this sound and basically doing nothing apart from playing cards (this is what Russians do if we have some time to kill time on a train…). I was getting my head around how on earth I was going to sleep on this terrible, revoltingly pristine lining on this bunk bed a countless number of people had laid in… On the plus side, I knew I was this one trip away from coming back to Moscow… It’s been a long long time and I was eager to experience my capital again… I was on a brief visit there about twelve years which was actually the only trip I had been on… So coming back to Moscow was like revisiting this time (not that I miss it but I just enjoy letting my brain take me down a memory lane which is always an interesting and in a way self-indulging experience) and see how the city had changed or I had changed in the way I see it… Lying on a bunk bed felt like lying under the train itself with the wheels beating in my temple… I was tossing and turning and let my imagination take me far far away, to all these places where a dream becomes a reality, where I see, feel, hear in a new way… I was wondering where exactly we were as the train took us further and further away… I need to remind myself that I was still in Russia and my actual trip hadn’t started yet… But our country is so big and diverse that travelling from its one end to the other would be a journey in itself and who knows – it might even teach one to see, hear, feel differently… I might someday find that out but only after I get this dream of mine come true. I was certain I would change in the process…

As a matter of fact, a trip to Moscow might feel as a trip abroad for some. It’s a fact that a capital and all its grandeur and magnificence don’t really sum up the country… Neither does Moscow sum up Russia… If Moscow is the heart of Russia, it means that it has so much more different kinds of blood pumping through it thus making it work with twice as much effort… This is how I see this difference between Moscow and the rest of Russia… It’s like Russia on an exaggerated scale blended with glamour, prosperity and pursue for the dream of prosperity for thousands of people coming here daily… I know it’s wrong to begrudge Moscovites their right to take this place for granted because it makes us seem truly provincial and makes them treat us in a patronizing way but it’s something that we can’t help really…

This is how I felt as I got off the train after a sleepless night and started taking in the capital and listening to the big heart of Russia beating with twice as much effort. I was ready to experience new things and even my bag that was heavy as much as I tried to empty it of all the things that I decided I could do without as I was packing back home did not stop me from feeling all these emotions… To my disappointment, things seemed the same as I left them back at home – people, streets, even the overcast sky seemed to follow us all the way from Voronezh…

I was terrified about the trip on the Metro (underground or tube depending on where you are in the world). We don’t have it here in Voronezh and the thought of travelling from home to work which seems so habitual to many people in the world was overwhelming…. But it wasn’t that bad after all and I even managed to do some people watching and wondered whether they could say that we were not locals or not and whether I could guess which of them were locals…. It was again fate bringing people from different background and sometimes places together in the same space… The Metro proved to be a quick and comfortable (something we are not used to here) way of travelling which took us to the centre of the big heart of Russia… I felt like the grandeur and beauty of Russia’s large heritage was within an easy reach as we were approaching the building of the Bolshoy theatre and seeing to the monument to Karl Marx on the way (which I remembered seeing in a travel guide book when I was small).

 

It felt like some opera music was about to play with people in fancy clothes and big smiles appearing from everywhere to get swept away by the power of art… I wanted to take a mental picture of everything – fountains, people, the vibe of the early morning capital.

I felt my heart trembling as I saw a glimpse of the Red Square from far away. This is sure the place not to be missed if you are in Moscow. It’s like travelling to London without seeing the Big Ben. The hotel where top celebrities stay at, the building of the Duma – everything felt surreal… The highlight of the trip was definitely the Red Square. The word “Red” means “beautiful” in old Russian. I virtually had to hold my breath before actually stepping in on the Square… It was like getting ready to take a dip into the ocean of emotions… Standing there I could actually feel the sound of blood pumping through the heart of Russia… It’s the image of Russia that we are grown up… It’s not the Russia that we see through our windows, it’s the Russia as an entity, as something massive both politically and geographically. It’s the place we remember from historical footages where so many crucial decisions were announced to the whole country listening in…

And, of course, it is the place for Victory Day parades with soldiers rumbling across Red Square bringing together people with a living memory of the devastating war and the emotions of people like myself who were lucky enough to be spared the sufferings of the time. There was so much history there that it made me want to cry… As I was walking down the square, I felt like it was a safe place to feel proud to be Russian and embrace a Russian in me. I felt privileged to be standing there and to be a sort of a memory card connected to all the variety of the feelings ranging from joy to sorrow felt here, all the events taking place here. It was a vague feeling but intense enough to make me emotional and say to my sister and friend who didn’t seem to be as impressed as me “Look around you!”. I felt incredibly proud to see all those people from around the world (especially from Asia) taking a guided tour of the square. I couldn’t believe that all these people came such a long way to experience the capital. It was incredible to look at their faces, hear them speak other languages. I knew I would be like one of those tourists the next day if (fingers crossed) I arrive safely in Poland. I had a feeling that here (in what I had to remember what was my own country) my first international got to a good start. It felt like Russia on the grandeur scale with me suffocating with history and seeing Russia the way people in the rest of the world see it. It was an iconic image of Russia. It was like a mirage to me which I felt physically. I wanted to come up to these foreigners and say “Love or hate it, this is Russia. We are ready to share it with you!”. I really felt like sharing just the way I’m sharing my feelings now…

I remember throwing a coin near the monument to Zhukov when I was to Moscow twelve years ago to come here again… And I did… I remember taking pictures of these places on our old photo camera which is now history… A lot has changed in the city itself or it’s rather me and my perception of the world around that changed…

I have one more thing to remind me of Moscow… It’s my Cheburashka T-shirt. Cheburashka is a character in a very popular Soviet cartoon. I have several Cheburashka toys at home as well. Cheburashka always brings out a child in me. And it was how I felt in Moscow, like a child who was so excited to see, feel, hear things…

It was an emotional day in Moscow and I think that it really got me ready for what would be my first trip abroad… It made my feelings more acute, enhanced my vision (the contact lenses were on of course). I was longing for more and said goodbye to Moscow only to come back here again as I got on the train to Brest… It was all REAL…