I joined twenty-one couchsurfers yesterday for a trip to Kolomna, an ancient town two hours to the southeast of Moscow by electrichka, the “local” train. I almost didn’t go because I was scared of waking up early–I had woken up before six on Saturday to make it to work–and mostly worried about the cold. I wore two pairs of wool socks, thick leggings instead of tights, gloves inside my giant intense sport mittens, my fur hat, my new fleece… you get the idea. And I was still freezing in the ten-degree, windy weather. But I had to go–given my Saturday work, I almost never have the opportunity to do something like this, and I was dying to see some place outside Moscow.
Couchsurfing events tend to be about half-Russian, half foreigners. On this trip we were blessed with perhaps fourteen Russians–one of whom the veteran couchsurfer Maxim teased as a Gruzinka, or a Georgian–an unusually large proportion of Italians, a tall blond Finnish girl named Suvi, a German, another American working for a Russian-American math education company, and a Turk, newly arrived to work for the Moscow branch of his native beer company, who had trained himself for Russia prior to his arrival by standing in front of open refrigerators. We talked about Finnish-Russian relations–Suvi explained that Finns expect to be the rich ones, but all these newly rich New Russians are flooding into East Finland–what’s going on? and travel, and Muscovites’ lack of travel beyond the capital, and Alberto, a Milanese Italian language teacher with a reddish mustache, told us about where he had been in the three years since BKC language school sent him to Moscow on random assignment–he’s even been to the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea, site of the first Gulag prison camp.
After getting off the train, we struggled in the cold, snow and wind past the war memorial and down the main street of the town until we reached a specialty store devoted to the local honey wine industry. Russians love honey and know way more about it than Americans do, treating it like wine with all their arcane knowledge of what honey from certain plants and certain regions is supposed to be like. So we came in from the cold and bought several bottles of medovukha, this delicious, mild, and golden honey wine that goes down with a sweet, spreading warmth. While we there, we also picked up some balzam, a high-alcoholic herbal liqueur that is “for health purposes” and which should be added to one’s tea or coffee. It was good in the thermoses we had on the train back to Moscow.
After warming up, we went back into the cold to see the Kremlin–at every Russian city, the only tourist attraction is the Kremlin! one Russian kid griped. The Kolomna Kremlin used to have seventeen towers, but now only has seven. What happened, someone wanted to know, did those missing towers get destroyed in the war? Well… they were actually dismantled in the nineteenth century by the townspeople! They needed some bricks for their houses, so they just grabbed whatever was lying around… anyway, the Kremlin was almost as big as Moscow’s, and it was a sight–the mysterious, imposing red walls in the falling snow.
There were churches and monasteries to visit, which is typical enough, but I really appreciated the chance to go to into some churches, as I get shy about it in Moscow. It’s easier in a group, but going in by myself, I feel like I’m not doing it right, maybe I don’t have my kerchief around my head in the right way, and I’m not sure how to cross yourself in the Orthodox way, so I’ll have to just waltz on in, and people will know that I’m not there to pray, just to look. So I was glad to have the cover of the group, and I love Russian churches, which are very quiet and intimate, full of icons at eye or chest level where you can light an amber-colored candle and pray quietly, and there are no pews at all, you just walk around doing your own thing, tending to the icons you want. The churches in Kolomna had wonderful painted ceilings and murals, including one vision of hell with the peculiar square, rocky cliffs unique to icon-painting, and a serpent ringed with the names of the deadly sins–there are eight of them in Russian Orthodoxy.
We then visited several establishments to see if any could serve lunch for a party of twenty-two, and finally found a place that served the most amazing pirozhkis and borscht. If only I had known that borscht can actually be so delicious. I am inspired. I am going to have to learn how to make it like that. You can imagine that it was ideal to have after coming in from the snow.
And the last part of our day was spent at a museum devoted to the town’s once-illustrious pastila industry. Pastila is a candy made from whipped egg whites and apples and is fluffy, delicious, and tangy, and Dostoevsky loved it, which our tour guide, dressed in a flouncy period costume, did not fail to make known. Our tour included some very delicious samples of the sweets along with tea served in a drawing room with period furniture and a loud but charming canary, and I wish I had brought some home with me, but at that point I was so full and sleepy from borscht, cutlet, and honey wine that it was absolutely unthinkable. At this point, we walked back to the train, where we had a cozy trip back with lots of tea and balzam and the sound of Italian, and the two Russian girls I was sitting with recited Pushkin and Brodsky in between sips of tea. That is why I am so tired today!
By the way, a lot more photos are here: https://picasaweb.google.com/106104253164737968095/Kolomna#