Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Return to Ekaterinburg: Part 1

Remember the scene in “It’s A Wonderful Life” when Jimmy Stewart goes back into town with the angel and his beloved Bedford Falls has become the wretched Pottersville? Well, that’s sort of the feeling I have here in Ekaterinburg. Traffic gluts the main streets of the city, high rise elite apartment complexes and steel and glass
business centers mar the view, neon, cafes, restaurants everywhere, all night stores and fast food joints have created a new night life on the once dark streets of the Ural capital.

Can this be the Ekaterinburg I once knew? Yes it is and it has changed. Mostly for the better, a bit for the worse but that’s progress I suppose. The E-burg I once knew isn’t here, there are little bits of it here and there but for the most part it is gone. I walk around the town a bit like Jimmy Stewart staring in disbelief and remembering how things were way back when I first came here in 1992. That was long ago and yet not so long ago.
My biggest amazement so far was my trip to IKEA with my friend Galina. She recently bought an apartment in one of the deluxe new buildings and needed furniture. So off we went in her little KIA to IKEA. Whoa, wait a minute, IKEA in Ekaterinburg?? Yes darlings, in a huge mall called MEGA is IKEA, The Body Shop and all the other material trappings of the west right here on Moskovsky trakt where there used to be a field or a cluster of trees. To think Galina and I used to travel the region checking distribution of food aid, making sure all the babushka and large families were getting it and not shady people out to make a fast buck, and now we were walking around IKEA shopping for a dresser and chairs. It was interesting to observe the Russians looking at the furniture, trying out couches, eating in the café in big family units, kids playing in the kids’ center—doing what everyone else in the world does in IKEA. Shopping comes so natural to the Russians. Thinking back on how wretched things were here in 1992, when there was practically nothing to buy in the shops, sugar, eggs, frozenfish and fresh cow lung, it’s amazing that now I can sit in the kitchen area of IKEA and watch people buy new furniture for their homes. Galina and I sat in the kitchen section trying out chairs and wound up chatting for about 30 mins, catching up on our lives and common friends’ lives as well. It was nice to have a chat in a kitchen without being stuffed with food (going to people’s houses here is taking a toll on my stomach—I can’t eat that much!).
All IKEAs are the same, if you didn’t know, and I whizzed Galina around the store much to her amazement. She was never good at directions and was a bit embarrassed that I knew the way to IKEA better than her. As per tradition with Nina, after our purchase, we have a hot dog and coffee at the snack bar by the exit. Galina was arguing with me that the hot dogs are in the restaurant half way into the store. No I disagreed but she didn’t believe me until I asked a salesgirl and she confirmed
the existence of the snack bar at the exit. So post-purchase, despite the fact we were on our way to her mother’s house for lunch, Galina and I had a hot dog and coffee as per tradition.
I’m big on traditions and as per tradition, I visit my old haunts when in town as I like to do. I go to TSUM, Gum, Passazh (the main department stores) to have a look at the farfor and souvenirs, visit the Art Salon on the corner of Malysheva and Lunacharskogo (it got junky—how many naked ladies and pseudo-O’Keefe’s and Van Gogh’s can one paint?). Some of the other traditional places I like to go are no
longer there but what to do. Another non-materialistic tradition is visiting the Ekaterinburg zoo. A friend of mine, Alexei is the director of the monkey house so I get a behind-the-scene tour of the zoo. His boyfriend, also Alexei, and I meet up and head through the personnel entrance to the zoo. We go check out the monkeys and then go upstairs to Alexei’s office for a chat, then he takes us around the zoo, showing me all the new animals and new buildings that have been built on the territory. This zoo has really come a long way. The first time I came here, one left more depressed than when they entered. The smells, the sad looking animals, the neglected cages and pens. Now it has expanded the cages, built nice brick buildings with proper heating and environments for the animals. Childrens’ art covers the walls, everything is clean and bright. This native born San Diego, who grew up in the world’s best zoo, was quite impressed. It’s fun going around with Alexei and Alexei, because they know all the animals and can talk to them. We had a nice chat with Elza the tiger who after a few puff sounds gave us a big meow. Alexei tenderly calmed down Johnny the chimpanzee who was riled up by a bunch of teenagers who banged on his cage. I
was happy to see my favorite animal in the zoo, Almaz the hippo, was still alive. He just celebrated his 30th birthday and had a big banner above his enclosures (he has a summer one and a winter one). My former office was a block from the zoo and back then, Almaz’s home was right at the entrance so I got to see him everyday walking around, sitting in his pool, sleeping in the sun. Now he has a much bigger space, with egrets and other birds to keep him company. He’s gotten quite fat and when I saw him he was a big blob sleeping with his back to us. Backside or not, I was happy to see Almaz.
Since being here, most of my time has been spent seeing old friends and going from one house to another, eating, drinking, catching up. Ugh! It’s a little too much. Helped Galina put together the four pieces of IKEA furniture yesterday which was a nice break from the eating and sitting around. I need activity, movement and would rather work, walk, whatever instead of eating and drinking and sitting for hours all the time. After putting together four pieces of IKEA furniture however, one goes a bit crazy, and I was ready to sit and eat and drink again. Went to my friend Masha’s house for tea which turned into food and drink and looking at tons of pictures. I forgot how much she talks (a lot about herself mind you) and after a few hours I was ready for a change of scene. She insisted on walking me home so she walked and blabbed all the way. I stopped to send a telegram (I love sending telegrams) and up date my blog. There she was right by my side—Oi vey woman go away!!!! I thought but refrained from voicing my feelings. She showed me all the changes around town which was rather interesting, telling me more things about herself right up to my door. I said goodbye, finally getting the words in between her blabber and went upstairs to bed. Today I’m taking a break from all that and am going to walk around town with my friend Zhenya. He’s not a big talker fortunately so it should be a nice day. I have to go up and see the big cathedral they built on the site of the Ipatiev house (where they killed the tsar and his family), plus visit a few other shops and places as per tradition.


John said...

IKEA is everywhere, I guess. Actually I haven't seen any in New Zealand but we haven't gotten to Auckland (biggest city) yet and perhaps there was one in Wellington.

I did read recently that the founder of IKEA is in the top five of richest people in the world - Bill Gates is still number 1.

Russian traveller said...

In anycase, this is wonderful city! I hope I'll be able to visit it once more.