Happy Thanksgiving :-)

Happy Thanksgiving 🙂

After just a few days home in New York City, I found myself in Moscow yesterday morning on the day before Thanksgiving.  I am completely fascinated by this city’s unending duplicity.  The architecture is indescribably beautiful, though it has a very dark history – many of the buildings were built by imprisoned German soldiers after World War II, and even the jubilant serenity of St. Basil’s Cathedral carries the historical weight of Ivan the Terrible’s vicious orders.  It was built by Postnik Yakovlev (nicknamed, “Barma” – the Mumbler); legend has it that, after the cathedral’s completion, the Tzar ordered that Barma be blinded so that he could never design another work that could rival St. Basil’s beauty.  I was also told by several locals that any modern efforts toward aesthetic pleasantry are aspirations to counteract the lasting effects of Russia’s dark period throughout the 1980s.

St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square

St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square

Due to Vodka and a rampant sex industry, Moscow is widely known as “one of the most hedonistic cities on Earth.” Sources for traveler information emphasize an awareness of the large numbers of IV drug users and sex workers, warn against engaging in any sexual activity without a condom and strongly advise, “in the event of being found to be HIV-positive… you risk being incarcerated in a locked isolation ward and treated like a subhuman.  If you suspect you’re infected, seek treatment outside Russia.”

So you can imagine that finding a local organization with whom to conduct focus groups about our female condom animations was extremely difficult.  My first instinct was to hit the ground running and try to connect to the community by attending the only drag queen show featured in my Rough Guide to Moscow, following the seedy directions explicitly:  “To find this basement drag bar, look for the Business Klass-Audit sign, go through the gate to the back and turn left.”

Finding Baza

Finding Baza

After passing the former KGB headquarters...

After passing the former KGB headquarters...

… we finally arrived at a deep purple door with no sign, that seemed like it might lead to an underground passageway.  We stood around for nearly 10 minutes searching the back alleyway for any other (hopefully less dubious) place of entry, then all came to a conclusion to brave the deep purple door.  Upon opening it, we found ourselves at the top of a winding stairway where we were greeted with a cloud of cigarette smoke and the throbbing, unmistakable musical stylings of the drag community 😉  After making our way into a silver-lined hallway that divided the hidden bar into two rooms and a coat check, we were told that the show had been postponed from 1am until 3am… and, as we waited, it was eventually cancelled.  Apparently we were the only 4 people in the audience last night, and the performers did not feel compelled to come in and strut their stuff for such a tiny crowd.

Committed to begin our search for partner organizations anew after a night’s sleep, we set out for an exclusive middle-of-the-night tour of Moscow with our new friend and translator, Evgeniy.

Walking...

Walking...

Moscow's Metro

Moscow's Metro

He took us on an epic walk from Milyutinskiy to Red Square, stopping at a coffeehouse to grab a Long Island Iced Tea and hot chocolates (mine spiked with a shot of rum) to go – yes, it’s legal.  We stood on a bridge above the Moskva River, and I landed a Ruble coin in the Red Square Wishing Well – which, in line with Moscow’s fervent duplicity, Evgeniy told us was originally a place where public executions were once held.  We gazed at the eternal flame under a light mist of rain, then headed home to our hotel in a dubious gypsy cab; the driver of the dirty blue Lotta turned out to be a very sweet man who has aspirations of sending his 17 year old daughter to school to become a Russian-English translator.

After a brief night’s sleep and a morning of searching, we connected with Focus Media who works with Dance 4 Life here in Moscow.  Within an hour of contacting them, we were sitting at lunch with their Deputy Director, Project Manager and Project Coordinator, discussing our plans for collaboration and the focus groups in the coming week 🙂

A classic Soviet canteen

A classic Soviet canteen

And tonight we were able to relax and enjoy the American Thanksgiving Dinner that Sophie cooked and smuggled from Washington DC, past the Russian customs officers and into our hotel room.  The Sous Chef at our hotel kindly agreed to warm the soggy Sara Lee pumpkin pie in his 5-star oven, and his waitstaff brought a microwave, serving dishes and place settings for 3 to our room.  After an hour of Franck’s miraculous microwave cooking and excited Skype calls home to our families, our Russian Thanksgiving Dinner was served:

Turkey, sweet potatoes, stuffing, mashed potatoes & cranberry sauce

Turkey, sweet potatoes, stuffing, mashed potatoes & cranberry sauce

Full plates

Full plates

Check back this weekend to read about our first Russian focus groups, a night at the ballet and our overnight train ride from Moscow to Oryol.

From Russia, with Love...

From Russia, with Love...

xojl 😉

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