Gabriel and James’ Excellent Adventure

by Gabriel Mesa

I would say this day began at the crack of dawn, but the sun rises at 3 AM in Moscow. A smaller contingent of the chorus managed to wake themselves up after the chaos of the free day that came before. Following the hotel breakfast (a hot dog and eggs with a consistency reminiscent of tres leches cake), the 17 of us were off to the metro station. We groggy travelers made our way through the Moscow underground to the Leningradsky train station, and on our way we admired the intricate and majestic metro as always. Upon arriving, we stood in the center of some stalls while Stepan bought the train tickets to Sergiev Posad. Although we were fascinated by the one dollar book stands around us, the piece de resistance was a KFC stall which was the first thing to catch our American eyes. It really is the small things that make such a big difference. After a brief discussion about the improvement regarding service and food in Russian fast food chains, I remarked that in this moment Russia seemed more capitalist than the USA.

Stepan returned with our tickets and we were, in classic YRC style, scrambling to make the next train. The so called ¨Elektrichka¨ (an electric train serving the greater Moscow area) was a full and colorful place. We were sat far from one another, next to the many Russian commuters. Vendor after vendor entered our train car, selling goods ranging from ice cream to woven bags, though no one was aggressive nor pressing. After these interesting sales pitches, I settled into a conversation with Stepan and Reed, the YRC members who were seated near me.

It was about halfway through our train ride to Sergiev Posad that the ticket collector came around. After he scanned my ticket in order to check that I was not a ¨rabbit¨ (a term for those who hop car to car without paying), Stepan told us to keep the ticket. This took me by surprise because I assumed the five dollar fare was one way. Apparently a three hour train trip cost five dollars in total. What a place!

As we approached the end of our exploration of the infamous Russian rail gauge, we sang some songs for the other passengers. They loved them. Several of them were adamant about finding out where our next concert would be and at what time. Soon we arrived at Sergiev Posad.

The train platform stood in a small ravine between woods upon woods. We followed the three or four other passengers that got off at the station up a narrow staircase into even more forest. What followed was a ten minute walk through trees and unpaved roads until we arrived at our destination. Behind a solitary bus stop was a large path leading to a gate. As we approached and tried to collect our party, a Siberian Husky strode excitedly in our direction. He greeted us with a wide smile, wet fur, and eyes of two different colors: one pale blue and the other dark brown. The dog’s owner soon followed and lead us to his farm. As we approached through mud and tall grass, new dogs weaved in and out of our group. In the end, they totaled about ten. It was also at about this point that I began to rethink my decision to wear my suit rather than bring it to change, a decision initially motivated by a desire not to carry a suit around and to get good pictures on the horse.

This old Soviet collective farm had a surprising charm. The greenery had so overgrown the rusted metal structures that the two seemed now inseparable. This almost post-apocalyptic fusion was the perfect backdrop to mount our steeds. Our guide led horses one by one out of the barn and we formed a line leading to the field. Most of us were beginners or close to it; I had only ridden twice before. Nevertheless, we all were elated to ride in the vast field ahead of us. The sun shone down after the rain such that all the grass glistened with tips of light. When we finally began to control our horses, we all lined up for a photo and burst into a song about exactly what we were doing: riding our horses through the fields of Russia. I then began to roam around the property, followed by three other choristers. This entire time we all were trying to get our horses to gallop fast, though all unsuccessful. I finally persuaded mine though much shifting and prompting into a fast pace. Much to everyone’s surprise, the horses behind mine matched the new speed, and we trod on laughing and frantically trying to control the energetic steeds. I then switched out with some of the members on the ground. After several more songs and pictures, we returned to the barn and said our goodbyes.

Lance, Hank, Peter, Reed, Gabe, Andrew, Zosia

Hank, Peter, Reed, Gabe, Andrew

Sarah, Beau, Alton, Stepan, Hank, Gabe

A tiring riding session inspired a rapacious desire for food. We unpacked a bag full of sandwich supplies and snacks, though we supplemented it with goods from the small food store across the street. I practiced some Russian with the cashier after she refused to believe that I was American, most likely due to my attire and dark hair/eyes. Even having explained the history of the chorus and what we were doing here, she wanted to know my background so I just told her I was Spanish (partially true). 

Waiting for the bus, by Emma Kazamryan

After waiting a while for the bus, we decided to take some incredibly cheap Yandex cabs (Russian UBER) and in groups of four we made it to our next destination: the first concert of the day.

Upon arriving at the gates of the Detski Dom, a home for the deaf and blind, we greeted the group of chorus members who just arrived from the train station. Outside the building were statues made of various interesting textures for the children to explore. A woman showed the men into the library to change and the women into another room. Having already worn my suit to ride the horses, I brushed off some dirt and occupied the rest of my time before the concert by reading children’s books which were perfect for my Russian reading level. As we entered the auditorium and began with the roar of Tebe Boga Khvalim, many of the children were taken aback and excited. One of them had hearing problems and was signing to Stepan and waved to all of us throughout the concert. I am fairly sure we were loud enough to be heard even by him. 

After the concert we performed the parade of cabs again and were off to the Patriarch’s monastery.

a beautiful photo by Ladislav

Once we entered what seemed to be a gigantic white fortress reminiscent of the walls of Minas Tirith, a group of monks received us and brought us to a changing room. One of them was a native Alaskan who spoke fluent English, though the power of this country caused him occasionally to forget English words that he knew in Russian. They instructed us to meet back at their beautiful green and gold amphitheater in an hour. Most of us took that time to snack and tour the grand churches. We grabbed some fresh kvass and a bought a monastery cake that was just a larger and more delicious fig newton with Old Church Slavonic writing on it. Carrying our loot around the grounds, Zosia, Hank, and I observed the many people that flocked across the square from the ongoing service to the holy fountain to the many relics. The American priest gave us a tour of the oldest church whose interior was dark yet glorious. The chorus then lined up outside the performance hall.

Our act was preceded by a group of older women dressed in very traditional Slavic clothing. They had a very gentle sound which contrasted against the brash chorus routine and, though I didn’t know it at the time, I was lucky to be singing with them later that day as well.

phoyo by Emma

After we sang through our regular lineup on tour so far, Stepan decided to throw in the patriotic song Kon’ and we began the progressively more intense opening sequence. Just as we knew the soaring and inspiring chorus which was coming next, so did the audience. They began clapping throughout the introduction with gasps of excitement. Despite being a world away, we were able to connect to these people’s sense of home and pride. The director of the monastery choir reinforced this concept when he said that we sang with heart and the spirit of the music despite “technical issues.” I came out of that concert quite spirited, and became even more so when I learned we were going to Stepan's house for an afterparty.

During our general scramble to the various bus stops and taxi stands, I noticed a sizable bust of Lenin right outside the monastery. Interesting juxtaposition. We filled up an entire bus and I had to wait with Stepan, Agata, and Malcolm for the next one which came within 30 seconds. Halfway through the ride, Stepan realized that he had promised his host to buy vodka for their party so we go off and on again. The short interlude consisted of Stepan running inside and grabbing an armful of spirits. Seeing this boozy bundle, the cashier said to him, “let’s get to know each other,” justifiably implying she needed to see some ID. The chorus met at the final bus stop and walked down yet another forested path to the residence of Stepan and his host family.

By the time we opened the gates to the yard, the festivities had already begun. To my surprise the Slavic women’s group was there in full force but normal clothing; they apparently were comprised of Stepan’s neighbors. A man with an accordion played nonstop for two hours, inviting us to sing and dance to every new song as if it were his grand finale. Russian food was laid out all across a table about twenty feet long. My personal favorites from the offerings were seasoned pig fat, blini pancakes, and potatoes of a superb quality. The only issue was the mosquitoes, though they seemed to bother people less and less as the night drew on for reasons that here are heavily implied. We were taught traditional dances and sang our own rendition of Country Roads as we are oft inclined to do in all sorts of places, much to the chagrin of some of the more decorum-minded members of the chorus (of which there are few). The night wound down and simultaneously up with a string of emotional toasts. One particularly funny moment was when Lance was translating Stepan’s Russian toast and understandably mistranslated a toast to people across the sea to a toast to sea-people which garnered much laughter then and for the rest of the trip. As a grand finale, we engaged in a fiery sing off with the other group which brought everyone closer together. Suddenly, we realize we have to catch the last train out of the town and everyone scrambles to get a cab or get driven. My car ride was an extension of my intensive Russian courses at Yale, as a native Muscovite chorister spoke with one of our hosts throughout most of the trip. She invited us to a Slavic music festival in Germany and we all said our thanks and goodbyes.

Having engaged in very active leisure time for the last three to four hours, we all were understandably tired as we made our way to the train platform with around 10 minutes to spare. Soon after boarding, Hank and I spoke with a Jazz musician in Russian, pooling our collective four semesters of the language to achieve a moderate success. After the first stop, a man with a violin entered the cabin (filled with only the chorus and a few more passengers) and began an emotional rendition of the Game of Thrones theme song, complete with backing track. He was good and the entire chorus pooled all their change to give to him, though not without a request. I believe it was Beau who then volunteered me to sing a rock song as he did later in the tour as well (though I never am inclined to refuse). After searching mutually known tracks, we settled on Winds of Change by the Scorpions. I picked up the mic connected to the man’s speaker and Stepan and I harmonized on a violin-heavy cover of a rock song about the very country we were touring. While an unfortunate ride for those wishing to rest, the spirit of rock and roll was strong that moment. I settled into a nice conversation and the beginnings of this blog post for the rest of the journey.

Upon taking the metro from the train station to the hotel, I was greeted by my long lost roommate: James Han. He unfortunately received his passport back from the visa agency late so he had to delay his flight a week, though he arrived that afternoon and was ready to explore Russia. Though everyone else had gone swiftly to rest and we had and early rehearsal the next morning, we still had a hunger to do more.

It was around 2:30 AM when James and I decided to go on an adventure. James’ part in this is more excusable considering he was still on USA time, but I certainly wanted to explore the fabled woods to our north. We set off on the main street, as complete darkness was stayed by the ever twilight sky. As we passed a gas station, the most lovable wet stray approached us. I, with bolstered confidence from my rabies shots several months ago, let the dog come near. We bonded and, in keeping with the Russian tradition of naming dogs American human names, we called him John (Джон). The friendship lasted the rest of our journey. He would not leave our side even though we did not have any food to give him. Even when we went into a club to go the bathroom, he waited patiently outside. As we walked away I called to him in Russian and said “let’s go,” and he obedient followed. A Russian man on the porch of the club remarked with surprise “He listens to you?” After some more walking, we entered the great wood, which lies right next to the city streets. A great wilderness at the doorstep of the hustle and bustle of the civilization represents Russian towns and cities as a whole. We stepped into the beauty of a clear European forest filled with birch and extending for miles upon miles according to Google maps. At around 5:00 AM we left the forest and arrived back at the hotel thirty minutes later. Once we went inside we knew we had lost John, but we will not forget him.

This day was filled with so many wild and life-changing experiences. This is why I miss tour so much already. The bonding we had as a group and the connection we made with the people (as well as the dogs and horses) we met is a feeling I will take with me forever. Though it is very difficult for me to say, I am glad that I missed the Bon Jovi Moscow concert that day to experience all the brilliant moments this day on tour had to offer.


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