The Moscow World Cup Experience
A summer trip to the largest country in the world for an unforgettable event.
As the day turns to night, some time around eight P.M., Moscow’s summer golden hour commences. It’s a long, appreciated sight. Golden hour in Moscow actually lasts for roughly two hours, the sun finally relinquishing its grip of the day close to ten P.M. I am gracious.
On my left, the winding Moscow river slices through the city. In front of me, fire-grilled squid and scallop sashimi. Aperol Spritz too—the unofficial summer drink of the city. The seafood truly is spectacular in Moscow, its supply chain from the rich sea to the north and the unparalleled Baltic to the southwest (where you’ll find the biggest sturgeon of your life and most likely, the best caviar) yielding an unappreciated bounty.
Check out video footage from Moscow on my IGTV channel.
In my right hand, I hold the mouthpiece to a Hookah, or Shisha. The coals sit neatly inside a grapefruit. As I stare on, one of the staff of this restaurant on the edge of Gorky Park, Moscow’s version of Central Park (where a park is more a place to enjoy great food and drink, watch an outdoor cinema, head to a skate park, or feed the ducks), comes to me and asks for the mouthpiece. He removes the plastic cap, fiddles with the coals, and tests the Shisha. After a few drags, he feels comfortable giving it back to me. He awaits my approval as I myself take a drag. The sun is now setting directly behind one of the many bridges over the river made exclusively for pedestrians and its glare blinds me momentarily. The Shisha has new life. Russians take their Shisha very seriously, with nearly every restaurant you attend staffing a Kalyan—in essence, a sommelier for Hookah.
I thank him and he heads off to another table to do the same. I wonder how his lungs take it. I digress.
Looking back over the water, I see a government building (you know it when you see it really anywhere in the world). In the distance, Moscow’s famous and photogenic Christ the Savior church gleams with a golden glow, complementing its already deep golden domes. On the same horizon one of the Seven Sisters, seven identical buildings constructed by Stalin, each marked with a hammer and sickle symbol at the very top (one is now a Radisson, another a university that became the location for the FIFA Fan Zone) stands ominously. I take a bite of the scallop sashimi. It lies in a puddle of light wasabi vinaigrette, a perfect accent to the tender mollusk. On that bridge I mentioned I notice the many young people who have climbed atop it, a tradition in Moscow. They sit with beers and skateboards, watching the sunset. I’m struck by the simplicity and its great similarities to the hill overlooking Florence, where tourists and regular Florentines go to watch the sun decline over the horizon and Duomo.
I hear the sound of a World Cup match on the TV in the background. Uruguay has just scored. I see some Mexicans in jerseys and sombreros (perhaps the same Mexicans who accompanied me on my flight in JFK, so delightfully gleeful and loud, both welcome and unwelcome on my red-eye), walk by and check the score. They say something about Suarez and depart through the park. The World Cup has brought with it roughly 1.5mm tourists to the city, suffocating tourist areas such as the famous Red Square, yet bringing a global camaraderie that makes the event so special. Fans of all countries yearn only to meet and take pictures of fans from other countries. I recall walking past a group of fans from Japan, Portugal, and Saudi Arabia, getting set for a photo with one another, all adorned in their countries’ jerseys. It is a beautiful sight.
But I soon notice that the sun is now on its last legs. I tell my fiancee seated across from me that I will return after quickly shooting the sun’s descent seemingly directly through the pathway of the pedestrian bridge. It turns out to be, perhaps, one of the most enjoyable sunsets I have ever seen. The sky seems so much more expansive on this side of the world. Russia, it strikes me, goes on forever. In the far East, a vast country once known as the greater Mongolian region. In the far north, an unforgiving yet beautiful landscape. Somewhere in the middle, the infamous Siberia. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to see all of it, but I really want to.
Russia is a complex country, yet one so subject to simplistic stereotypes. There is an ethnic diversity that is truly underappreciated, showing itself in many of the Russian traditions. In the southwest, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia neighbor the border, bringing with them extremely old customs (more similar to Middle Eastern or Arab, yet still extremely unique) and food, some of them tracing back to the roots of human civilization. In the direct south, you will find the ‘Stans: Kazakhstan, Turkemenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Krygyzstan. Many of the hard laborers come from those countries, a striking ethnic mixture of Asian and European features and rather small (in stature) people. In the East, sharing a border with China has yielded immense political and cultural connections, bringing with them a horde of Chinese tourists and a pipeline to hungry and ambitious sushi chefs from Japan. The sushi in Moscow, by the way, is phenomenal. Finally, in the direct west, the links to Eastern Europe--Ukraine, Belarus, and even the Nordic regions.
Of all these influences, Russia has developed its millennia-old culture, and Moscow is the cosmopolitan beating heart.
Check out some of my prints from Moscow here.
How can one define a culture so complex and ancient? For a man living all of my life in the Americas, it seems too rooted and grand to even fathom. But one look at Moscow and you will find the old and the new, seated together, unifying the future and past. An old chocolate factory is now salvaged and repurposed as Moscow’s hipster district (which they do much better than Brooklyn) sits across from the Christ the Savior church. I watch England face off against Tunisia with my family at one of the restaurants there.
Down the river from one of the Seven Sisters, Moscow City appears, gleaming in the distance. Driving up to it almost feels like being in Dubai. New-age skyscrapers suddenly sprout up from the otherwise low horizon of the city, promising a new future. What people do not know is how many of the buildings have gone bankrupt, built initially for office space yet released at the same time, destroying the market for offices as the supply increased greatly overnight. Compared to Moscow’s older architecture, it is an odd part of the city, but one that, as a New Yorker, is somehow very comforting and easy to understand. I bring my family to the top of one of the buildings in Moscow City. We have one last meal before I leave. A fleeting moment. A bird’s eye-view of the city I have grown to love. Where I will be married (at least religiously, in an Armenian Orthodox church outside of the city).
At the airport, I am now seated. Somehow finding myself at an Uzbek restaurant. I have the last good Lamb Kebab I will have for at least several months. Even in New York it is difficult to find lamb so well cooked, tender and on a fluffy bed of a bread similar Lavash in Armenia or Chapati in India. I have a Russian beer on my table too. 30 minutes to boarding.
Thank you Moscow, and thank you Russia. I will be back.