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posted: 6/6/2012 1:00 AM

Why the 'old country' is best left behind

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I have never seen so many mirrors in a hotel room before. Even the nightstands are mirrored. The switches for the lights aren't switches but lighted panels. There is not an iron to be found. I am a pedestrian traveler. I have a $35 fruit cocktail on the roof. It's fine. The view is amazing. The view from my room is a pile of garbage.

My grandparents left here a hundred years ago. They would never talk about it. When I asked my grandfather, Papa Dave, where he lived, he just shook his head. When I said I might want to visit someday, he exploded. Why would you ever want to go there?

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Here I am.

We drive by the building that has two completely different facades (one on each side) because Stalin approved both designs, and no one wanted to tell him that. So they built one on each side. We drive by the Bolshoi, and you have to blink at the splendor. One billion dollars, I'm told, was spent on renovations.

Five of us are off to dinner, to meet our Russian partners and their wives. We ask the doorman at this palace of mirrors and glass whether the restaurant is within walking distance or whether we need a taxi. A half-hour walk, he says; just wait a few minutes, only four minutes, and the hotel car can take us. We wait 10 minutes, and then the black car drives up. As we squeeze in, the doorman says no, that won't do; the hotel car will not take five of us, only four. But there were five of us standing there when we asked earlier.

A taxi instead? We go to the corner, and he hails a taxi. Yes, he says, the taxi will take five. We squeeze in. The price? That will be 1,500 rubles (about $50), the driver says. It's the price for an hour. We are going for a ride that should take 10 minutes.

Back to the doorman. He reassures us that it is only 10 minutes at most. He is just charging us as if it were an hour. He smiles as if that makes perfect sense. We get out. A compact pulls up, smelling of cigarettes and full of wrappers. The doorman goes back and forth between the gypsy cab and the real one. The gypsy will take you for 700, he says. Fine. Our backs are up. We climb in. It should be five or 10 minutes. But the traffic. And then the traffic light is broken. And no one gives way to anyone else. A broken light does not become a four-way stop. There is no accommodation. Deafening horns. A policeman looks on, moving slowly. We jump out at the intersection and walk.

I am in Moscow, in Russia, the place my grandparents risked their lives to leave.

It is a place of glitter and gold, of conspicuous wealth and poverty just beyond the square, a place where, in hushed and not so hushed voices, you hear stories of oppression and brutality and opulence and elegance. On the Aeroflot flight from Kiev, the flight attendant offers me an English-language paper, The Moscow Times, "your independent guide to news, business and culture." The headline says, "More crackdowns likely," but "repressive tactics against the opposition may backfire." Is there really such a free press? Or is this just a token for English speakers flying in? I ask one of the Russians, and he laughs. That is my answer. Enjoy a fruit cocktail. Take a ride in a very nice car, 1,500 rubles, the rate for an hour.

It is a 10-minute walk back from the restaurant. Less if you walk fast.

I am very grateful to my grandparents. Take me for a fool. They were nobody's fools. You speak American, someone says to me back at the hotel. Damn right.

Creators Syndicate Inc.

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