Tuesday, May 25, 2010

French Maid Invasion

May 25, 2005

French Maid Invasion...sunny and hot



We wait around all morning, waiting for the magic phone call saying we can buy our tickets out of Ekaterinburg. I finish Cold Mountain so now I don't even have to worry about whether or not to take it with me. We pack as much as we can and take stock of the food we have left in the apartment. There's enough Easy Mac for everyone and chicken pancakes for Wendy and I. There's also microwave popcorn left. But no coke. I'll have to get some more at some point.

Katya calls just after lunch when high-fiving Jupiter's ready for her nap. She asks if I can go and purchase the tickets while Wendy stays home with the baby. I assure her I can do this. I meet her and Sergei and Sam and we go to the travel agent.

On our way, Katya asks if we need anything. I tell her we need diapers, if we get a chance to stop somewhere. If not, Wendy and I know where we can get some so it's not a big deal.

Next to me, Sam looks tense. I'm guessing he's ready to go home. Today I happen to be loving life and everything in it so I'm his exact opposite. I ask him how their baby's doing and tell him how I taught Jupiter "high five". I don't think he's impressed. Maybe it's just the stress. I try not to take it personally.

Our apartment building (the fourth section from the left)

The ticket agent, much like City Hall, is within walking distance from the apartment. But it's all right...I don't mind a ride. It's in a huge building, half of which is one of the city's upscale hotels. Katya says the rooms go for about $300 a night (dollars, not rubles). I wonder how large those rooms are.

We go in the other half of the building to the travel agent's office. There Sam and I sit and wait. We each give Katya our collection of passports when she asks for them. Eventually we are given slips with the amount due written on them. We have to go out to the teller window in the lobby to pay for the tickets.

But first I need rubles so we go over to the hotel to exchange money. The lobby is very very nice, with plush leather sofas and glass elevators and the works. The money exchange window is closed. They're on a break. We sit on the nice sofas and wait. I feel like someone is going to come and kick us out because we obviously don't belong there. But no one says anything to us. I tell Katya how Wendy and I couldn't read the signs at the French Open. She tells me that I'm on my way to being able to read the Harry Potter books I purchased on my last trip. I don't discourage her fantasy. I'm nice that way. Sam's focus is on the ticket prices. He tells Katya you can get flights in the United States for under $100. Katya says for that price she gets to take the train.

The apartment building from the other side. Our balcony is the fifth from the top.

When the lunch break is over, we go back to the window and Sam and I each get rubles. Then we truck back over to the other half of the building so we can pay for our tickets. Sam goes first. He's paying by credit card. While I wait, I count out exact change so I'll be quick and prepared.

The teller's having a problem running Sam's card. He tries another one. That doesn't work either. There seems to be a problem with the machine reading the magnetic strip on the back. Sam asks if they can enter in it manually. Katya isn't sure what this mean so Sam demonstrates. He pounds his fingers into his palm. I think the pressure's getting to him. The teller can't put the card through manually so Sam needs to go back and exchange more money. Katya goes with him and I step up to the window to pay, glad Wendy and I decided to pay with cash.

I get my receipt just as Sam and Katya come back. More bad news. The money exchange booth is now closed. It hasn't even been ten minutes after the lunch break and they're closed. Sam is not pleased. I tell him I have rubles if he would like them but he says no, he's fine and he is. He manages to scrap together enough money for the tickets but says he'll need to get more soon.

We take our receipts back to the travel agent and watch as she writes out our tickets. Then she gives them and our passports to Katya who hands them out immediately. I store ours safe in my tote bag (man, I told you these things were handy!) and we go.

Our next stop is the pharmacy located in the front of our building. Katya and I go inside to buy diapers. I'm glad Katya is with me because the diapers are located behind the counter and the only way to get them is to ask for them. Katya asks if I remember how much Jupiter weighs. And I do. In pounds though. But I tell her I will know them when I see them so the lady behind the counter shows us one size and I ask for the next size up. These look better so I purchase them and we go. Katya asks if I can find my way back to the apartment from here. I think telling her that I had problems reading English made her feel better about me walking around on my own. I tell her I can handle walking around to the other side of the building and we part ways. She's taking Sam to the department store. I hope they'll take his credit card.

The Cathedral of the Blood

I show Wendy our tickets. There is much rejoicing. We decide to celebrate by taking our last ever walk around the city. First stop? The Cathedral of the Blood. This is the place where the Romanov family was slaughtered, hence the name. It is a gorgeous sight all white and pretty with shiny gold turrets. In front of the cathedral is a statue of a cross surrounded by what is likely the Romanov family. The surrounding gardens are pretty too. Everything's in bloom and weeded and taken care of and just lovely. I wonder what my garden at home looks like. Probably nothing like this. It wouldn't look like this even if I was there.

We go inside next. I immediately get stopped by a man who says something I can't understand. I apologize and tell him I don't understand so we start playing charades. Women can't enter the cathedral without wearing a skirt and something covering their head. Jupiter is all set. Wendy dressed her well for this event. Wendy herself has a scarf but is wearing jeans. I am wearing jeans and no scarf whatsoever. I apologize again (thank goodness I know that much Russian!) and the man leads me over to a corner where there are scarves available for people to borrow. I have no idea what to do with it and can't figure out how to get the scarf on my head. Another scarf-less skirt-less woman comes over and I copy her. I have a long green scarf tied around my waist to act as a makeshift skirt and I enlist Wendy to help me tie the scarf around my head. Wendy apologizes for me making me do this. I'm just sorry I can't take a picture of myself. I imagine I'm a sight to be seen.



It doesn't take long to tour the inside. The part where visitors are allowed is quite small but elaborate and beautiful. Maybe a little scary...Unfortunately, you're not allowed to take pictures of the inside so my camera stays safely tucked away. When we're done, I go back to my corner to return my borrowed skirt and scarf. Wendy peruses the souvenir stand. She buys a card. The cashier is a sweet old lady who first tells Wendy how much and then is kind enough to write the number down when neither of us understand what it was she said. She then carefully wraps Wendy's card in a sheet of paper to help protect it. I take it and put it in my notebook to help protect it further and we go back outside.

Jupiter's enjoying herself walking around the near empty courtyard so we let her. I take pictures of her and Wendy as they climb up the stairs and then down the stairs. On the third or fourth trip, Jupiter trips and falls. She screams. She bleeds. The Cathedral of the Blood takes on a literal meaning. Fortunately we have both tissues and water so we are able to patch her up. Minor scrapes is all. Everyone's happy. Well, Wendy is once we get her heart restarted.

We leave the stairs after that and go down into the field below. I'm trying to take a picture of this building that doesn't get cut off at one end or the other. It's the sort of thing you need a panoramic camera for but unfortunately, I left mine in the States. I keep backing up, checking the viewfinder, and then backing up some more. Eventually I get close enough. More accurately, I'm as far back as I can get so I make due.

Is this some sort of dress code?

Next we see a flood of young girls all dressed in French maid outfits engulf the Cathedral's courtyard. I take a picture because it's just too bizarre to be believed. We leave the Cathedral and head down to souvenir row, seeing more girls as French maids everywhere we go. We vow to ask Katya about it the next day.

We start down souvenir row, skipping the art work section of vendors. Some of the art work is beautiful and if I thought I could get Jupiter to sit still that long, I'd have one of the artists draw her and Wendy's portrait. Some of the art work is well...risqué to say the least. It's like another one of those culture shock moments every time I see it.

We stop at the tables where the prices are written on the goods. We can ask how much something is but we wouldn't understand the answer, so it's better this way. One table has some beautiful items made from jade. She has elephants and lions and what I think are tigers. I think a tiger would be perfect for Heather and so I ask if it is a tiger. The lady says yes and I decide to purchase an elephant for Elizabeth and a tiger for Heather. Wendy and Jupiter are picking out a necklace charm. Jupiter picks out a little jade heart so we get that too. The prices are marked on everything so all we have to do is add (scary as it may seem) and hand over the correct rubles to the vendor. She wraps everything beautifully for us and we thank her. She in turn thanks us. We walk away from the table, rather pleased with our accomplishment.



Encouraged, we go to the next table. We pick out some matryoshka dolls. We move on. We get more matryoshka dolls. Nothing can stop us now! We're on fire! Wendy buys a roly-poly Santa that looks like a matryoshka but isn't. I find a beautiful little wooden box with butterflies carved into the lid and buy that for Elizabeth. See, no limits here! I can buy anything! I just can't find the internet cafe.

On our way back to the apartment, we stop at the grocery store for one last visit. Jupiter and I stay outside with all the bags while Wendy goes in. A woman with a boy about Jupiter's age comes up to us. She asks us something in Russian. I tell her I'm sorry, but I don't understand. I'm American, you see. She nods and takes her son out of the carriage and introduces him to us. His name is Sasha. It's the nickname here for Alexander. Jupiter doesn't quite know what to make of Sasha. She hugs me as tightly as she did when Wendy first went into the bathroom to do the laundry. I smile and wave to Sasha and say Hi many times as this is about the only useful phrase I know that would work in this situation. Sasha smiles back. Jupiter is not encouraged.

Wendy comes out and we introduce her to Sasha. She smiles and waves and say Hi as well. Sasha still smiles back. Jupiter is still not interested. We gather up all our bags and bid farewell to Sasha and his mother and go home.

We have dinner and then we pack for the last time. Well, at least the last time in Ekaterinburg. There's still Moscow to come. Katya and Sergei will come for us at 5am tomorrow as our flight leaves at 7am.

Well, the baby's all packed...

Wendy puts Jupiter to bed, we call everyone at home and then make microwave popcorn to watch at least some of Ghost. Whoopi Goldberg, by the way, is still funny when dubbed in Russian. At least in this movie.

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