Life holds, what psychiatrists call, “peak experiences”. My most recent peak experience occurred just last week. After marveling at the architecture in Riga, staring at the ancient walls of Tallinn, sailing around the pastel facades of St. Petersburg, I arrived in Moscow.
Moscow, the capital of Russia is a bustling, eclectic city of 15 million souls, half of whom arrived within the last ten years. Its main tourist attraction remains Red Square with the contrasting elements of Saint Basel’s Cathedral and Lenin’s Tomb. Today, in addition to people, Moscow boasts abundances of food, couture and automobiles. The latter of which causes monstrous traffic jams at any time of day or night. After many years of deprivation, middle class Muscovites appear to revel in excesses. Thus, with one of the best Metro systems in the world, the people spend hours on the streets jockeying with each other to get to work by car.
After a brief acquaintance in person and a 15 years correspondence, my friend Natasha and I spent two days together in her native city, Moscow. When my train from Saint Petersburg pulled into the Moscow station, standing on the platform, with wind-swept hair, an anxious expression and a bouquet of purple flowers stood Natasha. We embraced emotionally then sat together on the bus ride to my hotel reacquainting ourselves, catching up on family news and adjusting to the ravages of time on our physical bodies. That was the beginning of our orchestrated time together. Natasha thought of everything.
At nine o’clock the next morning, Natasha traveled an hour and a half by Metro to meet me at Holiday Inn. (Natasha and her mother are two widowed pensioners. Pensions in Russia are notoriously low. They live together. Natasha’s mother, a retired obstetrician, retired fully at 80. Natasha still works five days a week to supplement their pensions. They do not have a car.) Natasha presented me with a ten trip Metro pass and we were off to the Glinka Museum where she works as a discographer, sort of a librarian for old recordings. Natasha is a musicologist
We changed trains once before arriving in the city center where we walked through several streets with pre-revolution, large buildings and a park before arriving at the Glinka Museum of Audio and Culture. We were met by a young, English speaking college of Natasha’s whom Natasha hired to give me a personal tour of the museum.
The Glinka Museum has a marble staircase that ascends for three floors, areas for children’s workshops and birthday parties, but no elevator nor air-conditioning. The displays of musical instruments are housed in glass cases. As my young guide explained the pedigree of each instrument (most native to areas of the former Soviet Union), she pressed a button on an iPod type gismo which played a brief example of the music produced by said instrument. My first super emotional experience occurred when I heard Frank’s violin concerto played on David Ostrach’s Stradivarius. Ostrach was Bill’s favorite violinist. Frank’s concerto was the first piece of music that Bill and I heard together.
As the tour ended, a pre-arranged taxi pulled up to the museum to whisk us away to Natasha’s apartment where her mother had prepared, as Natasha put it, …”dinner and supper”.
The apartment, located in the Western part of the city was in a residential section built 35 years ago near the Moscow River. The style of all of the buildings was a gentle kind of Soviet architecture, not too blocky, with a balcony for each apartment. In front of Natasha’s building, the residents, not the State, put in bushes and trees when the building was first inhabited. Thus, lilac bushes and birch trees grow outside her window.
Upon entering the apartment, we removed our shoes and put on house slippers, as is the custom. The hall way contained floor to ceiling crammed book shelves. A large living room located across from the entrance, had a balcony and was adjacent to a large bedroom. A full bathroom was across from the bedroom and adjacent to a moderately sized kitchen which had a full size refrigerator, sink and stove. The kitchen also had a couch tucked into a corner, windows and lots of plants.
Natasha’s mother greeted us waving a large bunch of parsley. She reached up to hold my face and gave me three cheek kisses. This diminutive woman in her late eighties had just laid the table for our feast.
And, feast it was. Stepping into the living room, I felt that I had entered the set of an old Soviet movie, minus the vodka bottles. In the center of the table was a crystal bowel on a crystal pedestal containing three kinds of grapes surrounded by yellow pears. The table was laid with the usual dishes and cutlery and the following: bowls or plates of tomatoes and cucumbers, radishes and sour cream, smoked pork, smoked salmon, caviar, strawberries, cherries, cheese and gefilte fish. When I sat down at my designated place, bowls of cabbage borscht and bowls of boiled potatoes came in from the kitchen.Tiny glasses of wine (the kind used for medicine and used in Russian Orthodox services) were added. At about two o’clock, after a toast to everyone’s health and safety, we began eating. At four o’clock, we paused to listen to Natasha play Beethoven and Handel rather beautifully. Then we looked at family pictures. At 6 o’clock, out came meat soup with egg noodles topped off with three kinds of cake and assorted candies. Natasha had shopped and would cleaned up; Mother cooked everything!
At 7:30 P.M., the prearranged taxi pulled up. Mother and daughter insisted that I take lots of the left-over desserts back to the hotel to share with my fellow travelers. Mother corked the left over wine, secured the top with a rubber glove (who would have thought) and placed it in with the dessert for me. At the door mother waved good-by. We blew kisses, then, another super emotional moment, mother gave me her blessing. Tears brimmed my eyes as I blew kisses from the elevator.
The next morning, Natasha appeared at my hotel with a picnic lunch. Then we headed to the Metro where we changed trains twice to go to Komsomolskaya, a beautiful botanical garden which housed a few historical churches, an old wooden village (houses still inhabited), an apple orchard and a replica of the wooden castle in which Peter the Great spent his childhood. We walked from the Metro to the park and then walked and walked and walked our way from one point of interest to the next.
This park was the brain-child of the previous mayor of Moscow. It has only been open for two years. Natasha has wanted to see it since its opening. She thanked me for giving her the opportunity to get there. The highlight for me was picnicking on a bench in the apple orchard. The weather was a perfect blend of sun and breeze; the food was appropriate left-overs from the day before. Natasha, however, preferred visiting the castle. The mayor spared no expense in developing this park. No wonder the politicos that be made certain that he was not elected again. But, the Russian people appreciated it! The only foreigner that I saw in the park was myself.
After a brief visit to Holy Savior Church, the home church of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch and to the Glazunov Gallery in city center, Natasha dropped me off at my hotel with enough picnic left overs to due for my supper that night, breakfast the next morning and a snack for the plane ride home!
“Peak experience” is a term usually associated with achieving one’s personal best, winning a prize, perfecting an intellectual or physical skill or reaching some spiritual height. For me, spending two days with a woman who took two weeks vacation to plan and prepare for my arrival in her home town, who would not let me pay for one thing, who treated me like a beloved sister, was a peak experience. More than once during our time together, she said that my coming was good for her mother. The family had suffered the death of a helpful cousin, a real tragedy in a country where who you know is still critical to one’s survival, had sent her mother into a depression. Having to prepare for my coming lifted her out of it. The day before I left for this memorable trip, an acquaintance from whom I would never have expected it, said to me, “Be blessed; and, be a blessing”. I certainly have been blessed; I hope that I have been a blessing