A Woman's Tale (I)
Moscow (Chapter 3)
Even though it was still in the middle of summer in Moscow, she was shivering as if it were winter in Japan. The dark clouds hovered over the sky and the rain gently drizzled where she stood. From the middle of Red Square, she looked up to see St. Basil’s Cathedral. The onion shaped spires which were colorful and unique reminded her of a castle in one of the children’s fairy tales she had once read. It was truly something to see. She felt overwhelming emotion when she realized that she was indeed visiting a foreign country. Suddenly, she thought of her love whom she left in Japan.
"If he were with me now, what would he say about this sight?"
Though she thought of her love when she saw the spectacular sight of St. Basil’s Cathedral, strangely enough, she had not missed him at all since she left Japan. She had been busy sightseeing and enjoying new experiences, she did not have time to think of anything or anyone else. She spent each moment with the thrill of thinking what would be next and then with the excitement of living through that moment. Besides, the love she felt with him was completely different from the unfilled love which she experienced with the priest. Unlike the priest who left her behind, the new man in her life had promised to wait for her return from Europe. So, she was secure about his love. But the sight of Red Square was so splendid, she suddenly thought of him and what his reaction would be if he were with her. She truly wished that he were there beside her to enjoy the sight.
Looking to the right from St. Basil’s Cathedral, the magnificent Kremlin palace appeared. The palace itself was a large building with white walls that were elegantly decorated with gold paint around the edges. It was surrounded by an endless rampart which was built with reddish-brown bricks. Because of the moisture from the rain, the color of the red bricks was strikingly deeper and that displayed the dignity of the palace even more.
It was nearly noon. In front of the main gate of the Kremlin Palace, the changing of the guards began. With a rifle on their left shoulders, two guards approached the gate, marching slowly as if they were toy soldiers. Dressed in dark green uniforms and a Russian ushanka-hat, they stopped marching right in front of the main gates. Two more guards, who stood motionless in front them until then, suddenly came alive, lifted their rifles, and moved away from where they stood. Without delay, the new guards stepped into the same spots, turned around, and then lowered their rifles. Once all four guards faced each other, they saluted each other at the same time. At the same moment, the bells of the large clock began to strike without any delay. And the solemn and precise ceremony was completed. The sound of the bells gradually faded away as it melted into the gray sky.
She was truly impressed by the precision of the whole ceremony especially the sound of the clock bells striking at the exact time the guards saluted.
Around the Red Square, there were people walking along the buildings and the rampart. The collars of their dark and long coats were up as to avoid the chilly rain. Their bodies hunched and the faces looking downwards in the dull weather gave her the impressions that they had lost hope and had no tomorrow. Could this be because of the pressure from their government or just feeling down because of the weather? Ever since she left Yokohama, she had witnessed the harsh treatment toward people several times. For example, the inspectors who scared her and her cabin mates, when the ship arrived in Nakhodka. Also, the incident which shocked her on the plane from Khabarovsk to Moscow. Having had such experiences, she felt this way about Russia:
"I heard news in Japan that the government of Russia is very strict about everything. It makes me wonder if the Russian people also are treated that harshly, just like the changing of the guard ceremony was conducted – everything was so precise no errors were permitted. If that is the case, how awful it is to live in such a country!"
It has been not too long since I said goodbye to you.
In front of the Red Square I stand,
wondering what you would say if you were here.
Though it is still summer in Japan, it sure feels like winter here.
When the icy rain touches my body, it also freezes my heart.
The streets of Moscow somehow seem lonesome.
People wander there as if they lost their hopes and have no tomorrow.
Now the guards of the Kremlin change precisely as the clock bells strike.
It makes me wonder if this city is as cruel
as the precise ceremony of the change of the guards.
But deep down she knew that this was not true. Even if the government of Russia seemed very cruel, not everyone who lived there was the same. In fact, there were fun loving and kind-hearted people in Russia. Just like the waitress she met on the cruise ship, Nadja. Also, the soldier who sat next to her and other Russian passengers on the plane who sang and laughed with her. During this Russian travel, there were so many people who treated her well. It just that the people were forced to follow the rules of the government which they do not have any choice but to obey.
Then she thought about people in general in this world and concluded that:
“Regardless of your race, your religion, color of skin or where you live, all you want is food on the table, a roof over your head, and to have a peaceful life. And you also want the same thing or more for you children. Russian people are no exception. Unfortunately, the government interferes their people’s true wishes.”
That afternoon while the light rain continued to drizzle, the tour group visited the Museum of Economic Affairs, Moscow State University, and the graves of famous Russian figures. Then next day the tour group took a flight to Stockholm, Sweden. The six-day group tour was finally over, and her new journey began. Feeling a little uneasy about starting to travel alone, she briefly stood at the exit door of the airplane and looked up at the cloudless blue sky of Stockholm. It looked as it was welcoming her to the country. Then she slowly walked down the staircase.
After saying goodbye to the group of people who travelled with her for 6 days through Russia, she boarded a bus which took her to the city center of Stockholm. When she arrived downtown, the first thing she did was to find a train station. This was because in her guidebook, it said to leave a backpack in a coin locker at each train station before visiting tourist sites. This way, she was free from taking her heavy backpack wherever she went. Carrying only a purse, she wandered freely around the downtown first. It would be a lie to say that she was not scared to begin travelling alone. But everywhere she visited offered different and unusual sights. As she walked through shopping areas and restaurants, her heart began to fill with new discoveries and surprises.
Seeing people passing by as she walked through the downtown, the first thing that she noticed was the large physique of the Nordics. Even women must be more than six feet tall, and they probably weighted twice as much as her. In those days in Japan, it was rare to see a person with such a large physique because most of the people in Japan around that time were born and raised right after the Second World War when food was scarce. And she was short even among those Japanese people. She felt somehow inferior being surrounded by such tall and hefty people …
The next thing that surprised her was the tranquility of the city. She lived in Tokyo for about two years and believed that all big cities around the world were as crowded as Tokyo. However, in Stockholm, no matter where she visited, there were not too many people walking nor many cars on the road. She felt a little uneasy being in a such a big city, yet it was so quiet.
The temperature in Stockholm was another thing that was noticeable. It was still in the middle of August, so if it were in Japan, it would be more than thirty centigrade every day. But in Stockholm, the temperature was significantly lower, she was walking around wearing a white wool sweater. When she passed a few restaurants in the downtown area, she found many Swedish people sitting under colorful parasols, drinking beer or icy cold drinks as if they were in a resort in the Caribbean. Most of them wore T-shirts and shorts exposing their arms and legs. It was a good reminder to her that Sweden is a country much closer to the North Pole than central Japan where she had lived all her life.
That afternoon, she decided to visit famous tourist attractions in Stockholm, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Royal Palace. At the Royal Palace, a tall, handsome guard in a white helmet, gloves and navy-blue uniform stood in front of the palace gate. He had a rifle in his hand just as the guards in Moscow did. She approached him cautiously and asked him if she could take a picture together. She was pleasantly surprised when the guard kindly lowered his rifle and posed behind her with his body facing the camera. She thought how different the guard’s attitude from the stern guards at Moscow's Kremlin Palace. They were so unapproachable; all she could do was to watch them from far away.
That night, instead of staying at a youth hostel, she took a night train to Norway. She was very tired so she paid extra money and booked a sleeping car so that she could rest better. Unfortunately, she was awake all night because the sound of the wheels kept causing such racket. She begam to wonder if it was a waste of money to pay extra money to reserve a sleeping car.
When the train arrived in Norway’s capital Oslo, she put her backpack again in a locker and decided to visit the Viking Museum. When she entered the museum, she saw a large black Viking ship which was built more than a thousand years ago. While walking around the ship, she thought,
"It would be very scary if a ship like this approached the port city if I were living in that port."
What made the ship so frightening was not so much the size of it. It was because when the sunlight came through the high ceiling windows of the museum, the old soot black hulls gleamed, creating a very terrifying atmosphere. The quiet surrounding did not help it either.
That night, she decided to stay in a women's dormitory at a youth hostel in Oslo. This was the first time she stayed in a youth hostel and did not know what to expect and was nervous. After she paid the fee, she looked for the room she was assigned. Along the hallway, there were rooms with a few bunk beds. It seemed that 8-10 people could sleep in one room. The bed frames seemed delicately built and on it there was one old mat, a blanket, and a pillow. For a new guest, the hostel provided two clean sheets and a pillow cover. She found it was interesting to have two sheets because in Japan, only one sheet was placed on a bed. However, when she was told the reasons why, it truly made sense. One sheet for covering a bed and another one under the blanket. So, a guest would wind up sleeping between two sheets to keep the bed clean. How clever the person was who came up with this method, she thought. This way, no matter how many people visited the hostel, a guest could sleep in a clean bed.
When she entered the assigned room, she found some women conversing in English. She was surprised to see them wearing only their skimpy underwear. She did not know where to look because their bodies hiding beneath them were so different from those she used to see in Japan. Feeling a little embarrassed, she quickly said “hello” to them, placed her backpack and other items on her bed and walked away. She then thought that the white women were quite confident about their bodies. They did not feel any shame in being almost naked in front of others. Yes, Japanese ladies would see naked bodies in a public bath in Japan, but they would always hide their private parts very well with a cloth. But she had to admit that deep inside, she was envious about their glamorous bodies.
When she entered in the dining room, she found many young people visiting Norway from all over the world. While waiting for dinner, she conversed with a young European woman who was boasting that she could speak eight different languages. She initially thought this European woman could only speak the languages of Europe which were based on Latin. But when she found that she could also speak Chinese, she was quite impressed by her.
But many years later, she discovered something about people learning new languages. By then, she had met quite a few people who boasted about speaking foreign languages even though they could only say a word or two which were simple greetings. When she found this, she thought:
“It must be great to be that confident that even when they know only few words, they say they can converse. Most of the Japanese people were quite opposite. Even they can speak a foreign language fluently, they do not admit it because they are too humble. They have too much pride in them so it embarrasses them if they cannot speak it perfectly. If they could only throw away their pride and learn to speak a foreign language with more confidence, they could master any language much easier and faster. You cannot learn anything if you are always afraid of making mistakes. But I do not blame them. As a Japanese woman, I too lack confidence and hate to make mistakes in front of others. I still have too much pride in me…”
The supper time approached while she enjoyed the conversations with other youths in the dining room. The menu for that night was a bowl of soup with little meat and mainly vegetables. Slices of bread also were served to satisfy the hungry youths. While she was eating, she longed for the gourmet meals and decent hotels she stayed while travelling in Russia. It was so different from the situation she was in at that moment, eating a bowl of soup and some bread, and sleeping with a roomful of strangers on a hostel bed. It was like being rich for a week and suddenly became extremely poor. But such was life. Prices were extremely high in Northern Europe so to live on $5 day, one had to sacrifice food and accommodation.
She experienced the Nordic white nights that night. Even after 10 o'clock at night, it was very bright outside the window where she slept. She had a tough time falling asleep. Despite the restless night, she woke up at 6 a.m. the next morning. She had breakfast at the youth hostel, and immediately began a sightseeing.
First, she went to Frogner Park, famous for its many kinds of sculptures in the garden. While walking around the beautifully maintained garden, she met John. He was a middle-aged man who had come all the way from the United States. He was very much interested in sculptures, so he took time and studied the details of each sculpture. He showed much appreciation and satisfaction while being there. On the other hand, she went there simply because Frogner Park was listed in the guidebook, nothing more. The sculptures were exceptionally beautiful, but she did not have any interest nor appreciation of them. So, after she took a photo with John, she left the garden to see other places which were in the guidebook.
She also visited small churches in various parts of Oslo and walked around downtown. She was surprised again about the tranquility of the city just as when she visited Stockholm. She wound up walking for close to 15 hours that day. It was the first and last time she walked that many hours within 24-hour period.
Her next stop was a place called Stavanger in remote northern Norway. It was not in a guidebook, nor it was a famous tourist attraction. She went there, simply because Stavanger was written on one of the letters she was given from a friend from her English class in Tokyo. Her friend was an older gentleman who knew some people in the Western Europe. Before she left Japan, he kindly handed a dozen reference letters and said to her,
“Traveling alone can be intimidating and dangerous. Here, I wrote some reference letters for you to take them with you. If you are in any kind of trouble anywhere in Europe, you just find the address on the letters close to where you are, then go to that place. The people who live in those addresses are all Japanese so you can ask for help."
Though she was not in any trouble, she decided to visit a Japanese man who lived in Stavanger. She was simply curious who would come all the way from Japan to live in such a remote place. She took the night train again and the following morning, arrived in Stavanger. To search for the place after leaving the train station, she showed the address written on her notebook and asked around the people who were walking by. She walked up some hilly roads, and eventually, she arrived right in front of a brand-new church. When she tried to go in, the church door was closed. So, she went around and visited an office next to the church. Once in the office, a blonde receptionist led her to a meeting room. The room was surrounded by large glass windows, the walls and the floor were made of Maple wood which was light brown. The sun shone brightly through the windows, so the room seemed much brighter and cleaner than any Japanese rooms she had ever been. The receptionist kindly phoned a man whose name was written on the envelope. Then, later she came back with a trayful of colorful sandwiches and a glass of cold juice.
The young man who came to see her was very tall for a Japanese person. He was wearing a pair of black-rimmed glasses which made him look distinguished and intelligent. He explained to her that he was learning Norwegian and trying to become a pastor there. They must have talked for over two hours in Japanese over lunch. She was very appreciative to both the receptionist and the young Japanese man who took from his precious time to spend it with her.
On the way back to the train station, she began to feel guilty that she visited him without any warning. As much as she enjoyed the conversation with the young man, it was not an emergency. She might have caused trouble as she took him away from his work. How selfish she was! She also began to wonder if it was a big mistake to go all the way to Stavanger using a night train. It took all night to get there just to have a conversation in Japanese. She could have easily visited somewhere more exciting. But instead of regretting going there, she chose to think that it was a valuable experience to be there. Even to know that there was a young Japanese man who was determined to live in a foreign country to become a pastor. That was impressive and something to admire. From that point on, she decided to think that no matter who she would meet in her travel, it was her fate to see that person. Besides, it would help her in personal growth as long as that person did not hurt her. At the same time, she decided not to visit anyone on those reference letters unless she was desperate. Luckily, she never had any emergencies while travelling in Western Europe.
She took a night train back to Oslo. She had lunch at the train station and then immediately boarded a train to go to the next destination. It was from the window of that train she saw a very unusual land formation. Unlike the geological formation of a fjord, which are famous in Norway, this rock formation was a huge, black, and grey colored which appeared in the middle of flat farmland. She did not expect to see such an eerie sight. She was momentarily taken aback as it reminded her of a dinosaur leg.
The view she saw from the window of the train after that was completely different. Surrounded by the greenery of the trees, there were white houses with red, white, and brownish roofs in the fields and the hills. They made a beautiful Scandinavian scene. She genuinely enjoyed the sights.