Moscow, Russia. August 2016
Rabih and I did not have great faith in our hotel concierge. Both our prior inquiries with him had yielded grossly incorrect information. So when he told us he could either get us the train tickets to Saint Petersburg or we could purchase them from automated bilingual machines at any Metro station, we decided to do the latter ("Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me," goes the saying). We only had a few more days left in Russia and we had to go to Saint Petersburg the next day if we were to go at all. We could not take any chances. There was a Metro station three minutes away from the hotel. So we went. To our disappointment, the machines only sold tickets for local Metro lines, more proof as to the incompetence of our concierge from "heaven." We looked around and there was an attendant's booth. Great! Maybe we will be ok after all. We walked there and inquired about the train tickets. The attendant shook her head. Let's see. Did she shake her head because she did not speak English or did she shake it because we could not buy train tickets at the Metro station? God only knows. We repeated the question and got, you guessed, another head shake. We had been in the country for only three days, and we were already annoyed with the typical Russian responses. As I noted on my Russia destination page, the most frequently used "word" is a head shake, a shoulder shrug, an indifferent look, or a hand dismissal. And we were not enjoying these very much as you may imagine.
We were ready to leave, then decided to try once more, though convinced our pitiful concierge may sadly be our only savior. This time we asked a lady in her late thirties and her teenage daughter who had emerged from the Metro tunnel. "Do you speak English?" We were elated to hear a positive response. Most Russians we had encountered by then did not. The girl happened to take English in school and spoke it even better than her mom. To our surprise, Lena and Sevan, as they introduced themselves, were eager to help. No, no train tickets are sold at the Metro station. We would have to go to the train station itself or buy them online. They logged on to the train station website on Lena's phone. After 15 or more minutes of fruitless trials, the only option left was to go there. We asked for directions but instead of directions, in a totally unexpected gesture, Lena and Sevan offered to take us there. They said they had time and would love to help. They even offered to buy us our Metro tickets! Our jaws dropped. While we waited for them to buy their tickets, a Chinese tourist approached me and inquired if I spoke English. Relieved that I did, he asked if I could give him the names of the famous Moscow Metro stations, information I had already gathered. It felt good to be a guide so soon after being a confused tourist. "You're in luck," I said, "we are going to one of them now on our way to the train station. You are welcome to accompany us." He was very appreciative. Little did I know, he had an entourage of 10 or so companions he was himself guiding. So here we were, two Russians guiding two American tourists, in turn guiding a Chinese guide and his contingency of non-English speaking Chinese tourists. We all hopped from one Metro line to the other, up and down stairs and hallways. The situation was so memorable, we even paused together for pictures. The Komsomolskaya station definitely lived up to its reputation. We had read that taking the subway in Moscow "is akin to walking through a national heritage site... Baroque, Art Deco..., and face stained glass windows, marble columns, crystal chandeliers, gilded mosaics and painted scenes from Russian history,"* a lavish project by the Soviet administration that aimed at boasting the country’s power, a "palace for the people" rivaling great palaces. And a rival to palaces it was indeed. Absolutely breathtaking.
Having safely brought our Chinese companions to their desired destination, we bid them farewell and continued our journey to the Leningradsky train station with Lena and Sevan. The attendant at the train station was as fluent in English as her Metro station counterpart. Had we come alone, our chance of actually getting to Saint Petersburg the following day would probably have been close to none. Lena was not satisfied until she made sure we secured the best two-way tickets, had a look at the train tracks we would have to get to the next day, received her tips about Saint Petersburg's best attractions and places to visit and dine, were returned safely to our original meeting place, and asked to come back and visit Moscow again as "they love to see more tourists visit Moscow, especially from the United States." Only then was she ready to bid us goodbye. Yes we collected many shoulder shrugs, head shakes and the like during our stay in Russia, but there would not be a time we would think of that place and not remember Lena and Sevan and their heartwarming rescue of two confused tourists, or one could say 13 of them. Hospitality at its best. In the end, the one act of kindness trumped many acts of indifference or unkindness. I am reminded of a beautiful poem I once read, The Power of One, by Ashish Ram:
"One song can spark a moment
One flower can wake the dream
One tree can start a forest
One bird can herald spring
One smile begins a friendship
One handclasp lifts a soul
One star can guide a ship at sea
One word can frame the goal
One vote can change a nation
One sunbeam lights a room
One candle wipes out darkness
One laugh will conquer gloom
One step must start each journey
One word must start each prayer
One hope will raise our spirits
One touch can show you care
One voice can speak with wisdom
One heart can know what’s true
One life can make the difference
You see, it's up to you!"
Thanks Lena and Sevan!