If you find yourself in Moscow in winter and a local offers to show you around town, a word of advice: either wear every piece of clothing available in your suitcase, or (when in Rome…) down at least three shots of vodka before heading out.  Both of these options will help you combat the intense cold, although the latter may leave you hugging the ol’ porcelain throne the few next days.  

Unequipped with my own advice, I threw on only one pair of long johns beneath my jeans and sweater, that I then covered with my fleece-lined Columbia knockoff jacket (a terrific buy after a long haggling session in Beijing’s busy Pearl Market) before meeting up with Russian-born Sergey.  There is only one word to describe my attire that night: naïve.  The scarcity of my layering didn’t stand a chance against Moscow’s bitter cold. 

The unevaluated choice to not wear enough clothing was made mainly out of unknowingness, but also laziness.  The day before, while at work, Sergey, who is working as our local dresser during our stay in Moscow, asked if I’d like to get together tomorrow on our day off.  Initially it sounded perfect, to be shown Moscow by a true Russian, but then I began to think about the state of my endurance after a long work week and the seven hour bus tour our security team prepared for the next day. 

“Maybe we can hang out in the evening,” I tell Sergey.  “It’s depends on how I’m feeling after the tour.” 

“When does the tour end?” Sergey asks.

“I think around 5:30 p.m.,” I answer. 

I write down the name of my hotel and my room number on a piece of paper, assuming Sergey will call the hotel the next day to make plans.  This is one of those times when I learn that when language barriers are involved in a situation, clarity is key. 

To my surprise, at about 5:45 pm the next day, my room phone rings just as I’m closing my eyes to recoup from the long day of walking, touring and learning about Russian history and culture.  It’s Sergey.  He’s in the lobby, and wants show me Moscow.  I tell him I need fifteen minutes to get ready.  But, even in my still sleepy state, my safety instincts kick in, and I spend the majority of this time running around the hall from room to room asking others to come along.

It’s not that I don’t trust Sergey.  He is very kind, and has been very welcoming to my coworkers and I.  But what with the fact that I don’t know the city that well, and considering it is a bit late (I know by normal standards 5:45 p.m. is not late, but here in Moscow, it might as well be 2:00 in the morning as the sun is nowhere in sight), I figure having a buddy come along is probably a smart choice. 

To my gratitude, both Shavar and Isaac agree to join us, especially when I mention that Sergey hopes to take us to taste some Moscow food.  When we see Sergey waiting in the lobby, at first he looks a little bored, or possibly irritated from waiting, but when he sees the three of us, his whole face morphs into the pinnacle of happiness. 

Sergey is not the least bit offended that I’ve brought along friends, in fact, if possible, I think he’s even more ecstatic.  He drums his fingers together and raises his eyebrows after we ask him what he has planned for this evening.

“I want to show you the dark side of Moscow,” he says as he smiles coyly.  I’m instantly glad I’ve brought Shavar and Isaac along.

“Does the dark side of Moscow include food?” Isaac asks. 

“Of course!  I will take you to taste very good Moscow food,” Sergey replies. 

After a five-minute walk through the snow-covered park across the street from our hotel, we arrive at the metro station and Sergey informs us we will take the train one stop to an area where he claims they serve the best kabobs.  Although I’ve already eaten dinner, the thought of a spicy, juicy, meaty kabob is enough to expand my stomach a bit more, and I know the boys are thinking the same as we happily turn towards the ticket window to buy metro tokens.

Before we can get out our rubles, Sergey stops us.

“Oh no, I have passes,” he tells us.

“Enough for all of us?” I question.

“Well, I have two, but we can still all go,” he says.

“What do you mean?” Shavar asks.

“Like this.”

Before I know it, Sergey is right behind me, hands on my hips as he pushes me quickly forward.  The boys laugh as they look at my face which I’m sure conveys a combination of surprise and annoyance.  I don’t deal well with invasions of my personal space, but I shake it off as a cultural difference.

“You mean you want us to go in illegally?” asks Shavar.

“It is the dark side of Moscow,” Sergey cackles.

Shavar patiently describes to Sergey that although we appreciate that he wants to help us out, as guests to Russia we really can’t do anything that could possibly get us in trouble with the law, as we might get deported.

“We can just buy tickets,” he says.  “Besides their less than one U.S. dollar.”

The Moscow metro system is extremely reasonable, at a mere 22 rubles (about 75 cents) for one ride, especially considering the immaculate condition of the individual stops.  After purchasing our tickets and descending the escalator to the platform, we wait beneath the vaulted ceiling for the next train, our reflections mingling with the view of the Moscva River outside as they bounce off the window on the opposite side of the tracks.

After one stop we climb the stairs to the street and Sergey leads us about ten feet to an area of food stands. 

“Now you will taste a Russian kabob, and Russian beer,” Sergey announces.  He buys three Toburg Dark beers and three chicken kabobs.  He teaches us how to say chicken kabob, “shauweer ma” which just makes me think of my mother in the shower.  At least I’ll remember it. 

We crowd around a few tall tables placed in front of the stand and chow down on our grub.  Sergey insists I eat at least half of a kabob (which is about the size of an average rolling pin) even though I ate dinner right before Sergey’s surprise arrival. 


“Russians like to stand while they eat,” Sergey explains as we begin to shiver.  “I think we need more beer.  They say that one beer, and you go to sleep, so we should have more.” 

Sergey buys another beer and stores it in his coat pocket.  I start to shuffle my feet to reawaken them from numbness, and ask Sergey what’s next on the agenda.  He suggests a bar, but it is rather far from where we are, and we all have to be at work early the next morning.  After he thinks a while, Sergey starts walking, and we follow behind like arctic sheep.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          After about twenty minutes, we find ourselves on the campus of Moscow University, where Sergey studies physics.  The building the extremely domineering in the cold darkness, and the scene is a bit spooky as the streets are completely empty.  Not that I can blame anyone.  What crazy people would want to walk around in this weather?


“So Sergy, are you going to show us a classroom or your dorm or somewhere with heat,” I ask.  I really don’t mean to be rude, but I’m freezing! 

He mumbles something that I confuse for a “yes,” and we keep walking.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        A few minutes later Shavar repeats the question, and this time Sergey answers that it is too late and all the buildings are closed.  “Alright, well, I think we’ll probably just head back to the hotel then,” Shavar says.  “We’ve all got work tomorrow, so we should probably get to bed.  Is there a metro stop close by that we can take?” 

“Yes,” Sergey responds.  “Very close.” 

We continue to walk, and pretty soon I recognize where we are in relation to the hotel. 

“Is the metro nearby?” I ask. 

“Yes, very soon,” says Sergey. 

We keep walking.  I’ve lost feeling in my chin, and it’s becoming difficult to talk without drooling all over myself.  By this point I can see the lights from the roof of our hotel.  We decide we may as well walk all the way back.

On the last block I break into a run, in excitement of the blast of heat I know will greet me once I’ve made half a revolution in the spinning door.  Sergey comes in, and we thank him for the outing as he warms up before heading back.  We apologize for not being able to stay outside for too long.  He laughs when we tell him we’re just not used to the weather.  I ask him if he usually spends that long outside on a normal day. 

“No!” he replies avidly as he shivers slightly.  I have to admire his enthusiasm.  I don’t think I’d be able to go to those lengths to show a tourist around my neck of the woods in sub zero temperatures.  Thanks again, Sergey!