I spent New Years in Moscow. I planned to go there and elbow my way into Red Square, Russia’s New Years equivalent to Times Square (complete with fireworks and a televised concert.) However, things didn’t go according to plan.
First, there was a pleasant turn of events: several other Fulbrights had the same idea as I and we congregated in the capital, so I had company. Unfortunately, the rest of the evening didn’t go so nicely for me.
The weather was wetter than I had anticipated. I had come from Ulyanovsk, my post, where everything was frozen and seemed content to stay that way until the spring equinox. Not so in Moscow, which meant that my shoes were soon soaked through, something which quickly kills the fun of winter weather. Being outside was hard to bear, even while moving. Considering that I wanted to stand for hours and hours in Red Square, perhaps the next misfortune was also sort of a blessing: Red Square was closed, at least to plebs like me and my Fulbright colleagues, so ultimately, I didn’t have to stand all night in one place on my freezing feet.
The entrances to Red Square were swarming with police officers (as was the whole heart of the center) and these armed, black-uniformed men repeated endlessly that the square is closed to all persons except those with a special invitation. I never did figure out who was special enough to get into the square that night, but it doesn’t take much imagination to guess. The rich, the famous, and the powerful — and perhaps a few plebs who got luckier than I?
So to cut it short, I did a lot of walking that night. At least the center was beautiful. It’s always beautiful (Moscow is so much better than New York City), but it was elaborately decorated for New Years with little holiday markets and lots of gold, silver, and colored lights everywhere you looked.
The other Fulbrights and I settled into a bar to warm up, and it was there that I tried my new favorite bar food, grenki, which are thick sticks of really crunchy dark bread (or really chewy croutons) smothered in garlic butter. The grenki were the highlight of my night, sad as that may sound 😛
As midnight drew near, most of the group wanted to stay in the bar and meet the new year together around one big table. I wasn’t about that. I decided to go see fireworks at a park I was familiar with (called Sokolniki.) Two girls in the group decided to join me. We stood in line to get into the park (standing in line in Russia, insert joke here), then counted down to midnight with all the people, watch a total of 3 fireworks shoot into the sky at midnight, then hummed along with the Russian national anthem while all those around us hugged and sang and played with sparklers. The kids were cute. The drunk guys were not yet drunk enough to be scary, so they were fun to watch too. My companions decided to go straight home after the anthem ended, but I stayed and walked in a loop around the park’s center, where most of the revelry was going on.
What a strange experience it is to be alone on New Years, but surrounded by people. To be surrounded by people, but to be foreign. To be a sober adult surrounded by giddy children and glassy-eyed adults. Walking through the park on Russia’s biggest holiday, I witnessed so many sides of humanity in the span of a 20-minute stroll. There was a lot of joy, but I also found many people who looked as lonely as me. I wondered if their loneliness was more permanent than mine. I saw a drunk girl fall down into a puddle and no one stopped to help her; I hope she got home safely. I saw lots of different kinds of relationships playing out between people of all ages, from kids with their grandmas to young lovers and old married goats. I wondered if the children, running like wild, had any concept of being up way past their bedtimes.
When I made it back to my starting point in the park, I saw that a pretty terrible concert was taking place. There was a band with some woman singing off-key and shimmying about on the stage. I decided I’d had enough. I rushed to the metro and made it into what was probably one of the last cars of the night, as the metro always closes at 1am. I got back to my hostel, showered, extricated myself as politely as possible from the other guests (who were much kinder and more sociable than at any hostel I’ve ever stayed in), and crawled to the top bunk of my bed with a sigh.
New Years is my absolute favorite holiday, but for most of my life my plans have dissolved into dissatisfaction. But I was safe, and I was in Moscow, and I still had another few days there in the capital to make up for it.
And that’s where my next blog post will leave off: what I did in Moscow, and the friends I made there!