Traveling, and life in general, seems to be far more enjoyable to those who have managed to master that illusive superpower called flexibility. Now, Joel and I are pretty flexible and relatively low-maintenance, so I feel like I’ve come to the above conclusion by observation. But last week I had to re-learn that lesson all over, first-hand.
I have always, since forever, wanted to go to Russia. It may or may not have something (or everything) to do with 20th Century Fox’s 1997 hit animation Anastasia that came out when I was an impressionable six years old. So yes, for the next 20+ years I’ve dreamt about Russia.
Joel has never really wanted to go, so for the last 3 years since we’ve lived in Europe, we’ve settled on places we actually both wanted to go to (seems fair?).
That is until:
Finally I had my in; the World Cup was just the push Joel needed and before you could say ‘Together in Paris’ (fan girl reference) we booked our tickets to Moscow, and our train ride to Saint Petersburg.
We jumped on our red-eye from Berlin to Moscow, arrived at 3.30am (in full sunrise), and enjoyed an early check in to our Airbnb. I allowed us a decent 4/5 hour nap (I’m the sleep police when we are traveling) before setting off for…THE RED SQUARE.
Except we arrived to packed sidewalks and squares, 4 hours before the first kick off, and the red square: closed off.
The next morning I read there was a concert there. Okay, so it’s probably open now. We try again: closed off.
Okay fine, I’ll go see Lenin’s embalmed body in the Mausoleum: Nope, closed.
Then we learn that the Red Square will be closed until we leave Moscow.
UGH, I HATE SPORTS!
I immediately get in my head about how much this sucks; about how much I hate planning my trip around football games; about how I’d probably never come back to this country and this is it, my Russia trip is ruined; I hate FIFA, I hate sports, I hate life, I’m gonna hate this town; I’ll lay my Russian dreams down to die slowly.
I sulked HARD.
But then the summer sun and the festive crowds, the cheers and chants and spontaneous rival camaraderie, the realisation that I am in Russia, and the sweet, sweet pre-packaged ice cream in wafer cones for 1EUR melted my cold heart and I made a decision that would change everything for me:
Just enjoy FIFA-crazed Russia for what it is, let go of your expectations, stop kicking against the celebrations, allow yourself to be infected by other people’s joy.
Just. Be. Flexible.
And with a cool attitude shift, our week in Russia turned out to be so much more incredible than I could ever anticipate. And after I let myself be charged by the jubilation instead of being drained by it, I have a new understanding for extroverts!
So yes, you get it – it was a bit of a click-baity title, and I am not ashamed! So here are the main (ironic) reasons you should avoid FIFA cities like the plague (not really [ok, you get it.]):
IT IS REALLY BORING
Sports, sports, sports – yawn, amiright?
I was hesitant about the crowds. I was afraid it’ll be too busy, and just sour my perfect sightseeing plans. But after embracing the spirit of the moment, the crowds added to why we liked Moscow so much. Now, it was really busy. Really, really busy. But imagine people from all over the world coming together, dressing up, dancing in the streets, taking photos together, singing songs, embracing each other, sharing food and drink, from sunrise to sunset.
We just sat down at a table to watch the Portugal Spain game, when we saw a guy with a big South Africa flag draped around his back. We yelled to him and he came over, we chatted away, and before you knew it we were sharing a table, food and drinks with a group of awesome people who we initially just yelled ‘Hey! South Africa!’ at. Where else in the world does that happen??
It’s a celebration of ourselves and each other, and I can totally behind that.
Russia is currently essentially a platform for a bunch of crazy fans who have traveled 1000s of miles to see their teams go head to head and battle it out on the football field. Fifa countered this with a #WeAreRivals campaign – showing a short video at the fan parks in front of each game, encouraging fans to hug their rivals, post it to social media accounts, and win tickets to the final. (See the results at #rivalhug). Pretty cool! And this is really what we experienced in Russia – fans from different teams were constantly posing for photos with each other, celebrating together, congratulating each other, or offering their condolences.
It seems like a recipe for disaster, but what we witnessed was actually quite inspirational, and critically so in the combative political climate of the day. There was not an ounce of animosity, just a celebration of difference and camaraderie from thousands of people so vastly diverse – it is enough to make you believe in all the good in the world.
And also, Moscow and Saint Petersburg are both lovely cities and not at all scary places. I am not sure why people think Russia is scary, but I am guessing the negative portrayal in the media and all those American movies don’t help.
MY TEAM ISN’T PLAYING
Nope, not a thing either.
Yes, half of Mexico and the entire Iceland showed up to support their teams, but you don’t have to have a team to get invested or benefit from the spirit of those who are. There were tons of people walking around with flags that were nowhere near competing (like, read above, our South African friends), rooting for the underdogs, or whichever country is closest, or just for Mexico (the fan favourites).
Of course we had to root for the African teams, and we were pumped to have tickets to the Egypt Russia game, but we were really disappointed that we didn’t have any Egyptian paraphernalia – we wanted to show our support! Some face paint, a flag, a knock-off jersey, a hat, anything. And then right in front of the stadium entrance the heavens answered our prayers and an Egyptian flag flew right into my hands from the sky. FOR REALLLLL.
So no, you don’t need to have a team – Mother Russia will provide.
RUSSIA IS A COLD AND DARK PLACE
I think my first real, non-animated impression of Russia came from a picture I saw in an Afrikaans magazine when I was little. It was of a bunch of old people standing outside in the snow half-naked to get some sun. Dang Russia must be depressing, I thought. Fur hats, Siberian huskies, drinking vodka to stay warm, vast snowy deserts, solitary trains chuffing in the darkness – let’s be honest, these are the things we imagine when we think of Russia.
Though I can’t speak to the climate for the biggest country in world with…are you sitting down…ELEVEN time zones, I can say that summer in Moscow and Saint Petersburg is AWESOME. The days are long and hot, but not humid, and in Saint Petersburg it never gets dark.
WHITE NIGHTS IN SAINT PETERSBURG
It’s called the White Nights and it occurs for two to three weeks around the longest day of the year – 21 June, the summer solstice. The sun sets around midnight, and then it goes from dusk to dawn in no time at all until the sun starts rising at 3am. Experiencing these monolithic long days is truly bizarre; dinner at 11pm or even midnight, everyone out on the streets all through the night, seeing night on your left and day on your right, and not actually being able to tell whether it’s getting lighter or darker.
Then the Saint Petersburg bridges draw through the night, a historic nightly necessity that turned into tradition. Palace Bridge, right behind the State Hermitage, draws first at 01.25 to music and fanfare. Hundreds of people watch from the shore, and some hop onto bridge tour boats and chase all the bridges as they open (remember to check the updated schedule!). I’ve never thought that watching bridges draw could feel so magical, but when hundreds of people are out in the barely-there night, the excitement is infectious.
Of course it helps that Russia had just won a World Cup game in the city’s stadium.
THE POWER OF FLEXIBILITY
In the end, both of us loved our week in Russia way more because we embraced each other’s interests, budged on our own agendas, and reassessed our expectations. Joel let me make him do the Moscow Underground Metro Tour (the world’s most impressive metro – it’s absolutely incredible), and stand in line for the Hermitage museum. I let myself be swept up by soccer, and it’s made our week in Russia so much fun, and wholly unforgettable.
When I changed my attitude (it’s so simple!) and forced myself to be flexible, what I at first perceived as hysteria and frenzy, I instead experienced as joy and elation. We were sad to leave all the craziness behind, but you better believe we will return to Russia asap, and we are watching every game in the meantime.
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