Saturday, September 6, 2008

Pacific Peso Adventure

This is my first entry since arriving in Russia. It's not anything about traveling to Moscow, or really about Moscow at all, however, since I haven't worked out how to post photos yet. Instead, this is a post about how play money and New Zealand money are largely indistinguishable from one another when outside of New Zealand.

5/9. Day one.

I finished at work at about 4, with about 500 Rubles in my wallet, which works out at about NZ$25. So, with a fat wad of New Zealand and Australian bank notes in my bag, I headed off to the airport to exchange it for Rubles, and, by extension, food. It's perhaps a misnomer to call this "day one", since I had, by this stage, spent the last week learning that Moscow has many, many currency exchange bureaus, and that they only accept greenbacks, Euroes, and occasionally Pound sterling.

Thankfully, the Moscow Metro is incredibly user-friendly, as evidenced by the fact that even I -- with no Russian language ability and a talent for getting lost -- am not dead, or in St. Petersberg. It took me all of about half an hour to get from my home to Paveletskaya, and all of half an hour to find the train station to the airport, called Paveletski, which is directly across the road from Paveletskaya. From here, it was a 40 minute, 200 Ruble express train to the airport.

At this point, I have to comment on the space between the central city and the airport. Within the city itself, and reaching out to the outer suburbs, there is a very spider-web like subway system. I'm told that it transports 9 million passengers a day, which is more than the New York and London subway systems combined. However, it seems to me that, at the very periphery of this subway system, everything changes dramatically. Up until this point, it is all "Moscow", but of decreasing density as one moves away from the centre of the city, such that my home, on the second-to-last stop on the line, is in a high-rise apartment building surrounded by parks and large supermarkets. Suddenly, as soon as the Metro comes to an end, things becomes a bizarre mix of countryside, motorway, suburbia and industry. It's quite unlike anything I've ever seen.

After getting on the express train at Paveletski, with a few concerns regarding the fact that I couldn't be completely sure it would actually take me to the airport, I arrived 40 minutes later at a large open area with lots of airplanes and buildings.

To get into the airport from the train platform, I had to queue to get through the fourth and final ticket check, followed by a fairly industrial strength looking metal detector. Note, however, that Russians don't view the concept of queuing in the same way we do back in New Zealand. If I cannot think of any other reason for learning Russian, then I at least what to find out if Russian draws a linguistic distinction between "orderly queue" and "amorphous mass of people"; things seemed to be organised along the reasoning: There are four ticket gates at the other end of the platform. Every man for himself.

Alive, and slightly sweaty, I eventually found myself in the main terminal of the airport, looking for a currency exchange booth. I found three, scattered throughout the airport, and not one of them recognised either New Zealand or Australian bank notes. In this sense, I'm using recognise, not to mean "validate", as in "Great Britain doesn't 'recognise' the Euro"; I'm using the word to mean that the women in the exchange booths gave me looks that said "This isn't real money. You clearly drew these yourself with crayons and glitter-glue".

4 hours, and 400 Rubles later, I returned home. All over the world, people were spending their Friday evening partying, drinking with friends, and happily forking over their money to have a good time. For one day, I was my own counter cultural movement -- choosing to spend my Friday evening, and almost all of my remaining usable money, to sit on a train, wander around an airport and have a somewhat frustrating time.

But all was not lost. Moscow has another airport, and it had the potential --I hoped -- to exchange the colourful plastic money that was stuffed in my wallet into dull paper money with actual buying power.

6/9 Day two.

Saturday morning, and Lonely Planet: Moscow lists one more airport for me to try. The itinerary for the sojourn was: Riding a train across the entire width of Moscow. Getting onto bus number 851. Doing what everyone else does. Getting off the bus when the bus stops near planes and buildings.

The train trip went well. In this case, I take "well" to mean "without significant hindrance to my goal" rather than the more conventional sense of the word.

The bus trip started with my regretting that I haven't learned the Russian for "short change".

Buses in Moscow are, honestly, a little frightening. They are really more like two buses, joined together by way of a rusty-sounding hinge, which seems to scream "I dare you to stand right here" at every corner. After about half an hour on the bus, I found myself standing next to an empty seat -- a precious moment on Moscovian public transport -- and sat down.

Russian beurocracy seems to have some weird, obsessive-compulsion with tickets. Without one, a heavy rotary gate at the entrance makes the bus physically inaccessible, and yet there was still a ticket collector who began pacing the vehicle about half way through the journey. Apparently my ticket was in order, although, like most things here, I had to assume.

I don't think that the same could be said for another guy on the bus.

The ticket collector stopped to talk to a tall, skinny guy dressed entirely in black. He looked about twenty, and didn't produce a ticket when he was asked to (asked is an assumption. I am learning Russian, but only very, very slowly). He said something in return. I couldn't decide if what he said was snarky, or just a product of Russian mannerisms, but it appeared to me as if the two of them were arguing. This went on for a while, and I still couldn't be convinced either way as to whether or not it was an argument, or simply Russian brusqueness, but I would say that he had lost his ticket, she was telling him to buy a new one, and he was refusing on the grounds that he had already paid for one. However, for all I could tell, they could just have easily been debating the relative merits of generative models of grammar as compared to functional grammar.

At this point, a passenger sitting behind me joined in on the discourse. I choose to believe that he said something more exciting that "stop being a douche and just buy another ticket"; perhaps "generative grammar is nothing more than an attempt to lift natural language out of the confines of the social and cultural context from which it is intrinsically bound, and, ultimately, inherently derived! Language cannot exist without context, and by extension, the analysis of language is meaningless without a simultaneous analysis of the purpose for which it is exists!"

The guy in black responded, -- I have decided -- by yelling "You fool! Generative grammar doesn't seek to view language as divorced from, and unrelated to, social context; it is merely an analytical approach that values the inherent complexity of natural language enough to grant in the focused attention that it demands in order to be fully appreciated and understood! Functional grammar is nothing but naivety towards this inherent complexity; and an approach that is barely capable of crediting morpho-syntax with being anything more a random and arbitrary string of isolated words, which are grammatical if and only if the intended meaning is roughly conveyed!"

"I struggle to comprehend how a theoretical model, developed by a man who believes that the main purpose of professional sport is to distract and suppress the intellect of the masses, could possible be taken seriously!"

At this, the skinny guy in black stood up and marched towards the other guy, possibly yelling "Chomsky's extreme socialist views are not, in any way, related to his linguistic theories, and you are completely out of line in attempting to draw down an argument against the latter derived from the former!" At this, the skinny guy threw his arm towards the other guy in some sort of compromise between a hook and a flail. The other guy responded in kind, and so it went on for a few blows. There was a body slam against the bus door at precisely the right point in the fight as to keep things interesting, and eventually two more guys stepped in and dragged the improvisational boxers apart. The guy in black had a line of blood down the length of his forearm, which seemed to have originated from the other guy's eyebrow. Nobody pressed him for a ticket after that.

At the risk of being a little anti-climactic, they did exchange my money in the airport. More accurately, they exchanged my Australian money, although I got the "Crayons and glitter-glue" look when I showed my New Zealand cash to the money-exchange teller.

Given that I now had notably more than 10 rubles, I decided to spend some money on checking my e-mail. I strode confidentially up to the information desk, and said "gde internet cafe? (Where is the internet cafe?)", to which the disappointingly English response came "upstairs, on the left."

I don't know all that much Russian yet, but it seems to me that the every single phrase I have learned thus far translates as "I'm a stupid foreigner".