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Destinations, Dreams and Dogs - International adventure with a fast-track family (& dogs) of Old World values, adopting the Russian-Italian-American good life on the go…!

Russian Hotel or Apartment?

Moscow, mid-December, traveling to meet our anticipated seven-year-old son for the first time. Snow softly fell by night on the illuminated and magical St. Basil’s in the ploschad before us. We were seated in the eighth floor restoran of the renowed Rossiya Hotel, largest lodgings in the world for some years with 21 floors, 3,200 rooms, 245 half suites, a post office, health club, nightclub, movie theater and barber shop, as well as the 2,500-seat State Central Concert Hall.

The smallish rooms were “Rustic Russian” by many’s standards. We took some sort of perverse pleasure in the rock-hard twin beds, juxtaposed against the most amazing Tsarist scenery, Kremlin clock tower and all. By night, we retired to this delightful eatery, simple and serene, savoring borsh, pelemeni, and chai, blaring rock videos nothwithstanding.

Alas, the Rossiya is long gone, and our family greatly expanded, requiring us to locate alternate arrangements. In Russia, the rule of three people per hotel room limited our choices and made accommodations one of the most costly components of bringing home a child.

Russian adoptions could be likened to kidnappings in that you’re held for long periods of time in one place against your will. But Russia is no hardship; paying the hotel bill is.

For those unaware of foreign economies, Moscow is now the fourth most expensive city in the world. Was the most expensive for some years. (Naturally, we planned our adoptions to coincide with the highest-priced time frame.) Should anyone need to spend a month or so in this Slavic situ, all I can advise is say dasvidaniyeh to your dollars.

Although numerous adoptive parents loved to play the game, “How to Stay in Russia and Feel Like You’ve Never Left the U.S.”, Benedetto and I were not xenophobic and actually loved most things Russian. Exchanging e-mails with other couples about why “my Moscow Marriott is better than your Moscow Marriott”, and where was the nearest McDonalds, Starbucks or TGIFridays, these did not rank among our Ten Most Important Things to Do.

But we did need to answer the question: what could we do in terms of accommodations? Either we had to think creatively, or we would be camping in a tent in Gorky Park.

It was then that our eyes were opened to the wonderful world of holiday apartments. Renting a 3-room apartment with full bath and compact kitchen could suit us quite nicely. That’s when we also learned about free Wi-Fi and unlimited calls abroad. That alone, might amount to a right fine ruble.

Look for a moment at a cost breakdown, based on our family of six. Hotel per night: $400-$600 for two rooms in low season (keeping in mind that only one or two days out of 365 qualified as “low-season” in Russia, except for Leap Year, or the Chinese New Year of the Water Buffalo); apartment per night: $200. Breakfast buffet at one of the large hotel chains: $35 per person or $210/day; bread, jam, yogurt, milk, coffee, and eggs from the local gastronom: $20 total per day. Hotel or restaurant meals at $20 per person x 2 meals per day = $40 x 6 people = $240/day; sandwiches for lunch and cooking dinner in the apartment = $50/day.

So if we had to spend ten days in this top-drawer city, the hotel and food costs alone would come close to $10,000 and the apartment and dine-in costs would be closer to $3,000.

No biggie. International adoptions were usually not undertaken by those counting kopeks.

Personally, I’ve found Russian apartments to be much quieter than hotels, not a difficult task at such volume levels, but nice to keep in mind. In a country where prostitution is legal, dozens of hotel doors might slam throughout the course of a night, along with randomly-dialed solicitation calls ringing round the clock. In contrast, I remember our first flat on Smolensky, where each night, between 11:00 pm and 12:00 midnight, classical piano sonatas drifted down from the floor above.

At the apartment on Starii Arbat, we had the pleasure of being two steps away from everything:  location, location, location. There was a lot of undercover intrigue associated with entering the very comfortable home away from home that belied its top Moscow location: no liveried doormen, no polished wood, nor glass double doors, instead, a heavy metal security door on a back alley stood between us and the upscale environs within. Okay, that was a little different….

To add to the foreign adventure, each of us carried a slip of paper in our pocket which we surreptitiously consulted for the complex security code to punch-in and gain access. I grew so paranoid that we would be stranded on the seedy back street, that I tucked another copy of the code into my purse, portfolio, and a different pocket, lol. (At least we didn’t have to crumple and eat the paper-!) But it was all worth it once inside with our view of one of Stalin’s “Seven Sisters” skyscrapers to one side, and Old Arbat cafes on the opposite side.

Most flats for rent abroad furnish linens, towels, dishes, and maybe one or two soft soap dispensers. It helps to bring along a few items of your own, things that may not be easily located at the corner market. Here’s a list for your eyes only.

In the kitchen: paper plates, napkins, paper towels, and a dollar store dishtowel will really help. With a family our size, a massive cooking pot for pasta would also be apropos, but there’s only so much one can haul. Add a few paper hot-cold cups and plastic cutlery. This allows you to avoid non-stop dishwashing, or eating in shifts if there are only three forks. A serated knife is always good for the world-class, Russian black bread. (If flying, avoid placing any knife in your carryon.) Small kitchen trashbags cannot be encouraged enough, or maybe we’re just really trashy people-!

In the bath: bring your own toiletries since this is not the Hilton, it’s not even the Howard Johnson. Remember a favorite shampoo, face, or body soap. Most apartments provide plenty of toilet paper, but it’s smart to have packets of pocket kleenex for public restrooms, anyway. A stand-up travel mirror is good if you want to do your hair or makeup while someone else is in the bathroom.

Most important of all (are you taking notes?) is a flat, disc-like, universal sink stopper, whether to bathe a child in the tub, or to wash out some socks and undies in the sink, a stopper will be vital to your travel success. (I’ve never pondered it sufficiently, but there must be roving bands of robbers specializing in the theft of sink stoppers worldwide. The drain plugs are always missing.) Remember that microfiber dries faster than cotton, too. Toss in your bag a stretchy, braided, bungee clothesline and you’re good to go. Some insist on extra packets of laundry soap, but really, if you’re doing sink sudsing, a bar of soap will be fine.

Staying in Russian apartments has been a fun experience for our family. The majority are decent, clean, attractive, and convenient. Well, once, there was that regional hotel-apartment straight out of the 1960s, but in their defense, they sized us up beforehand and embarrassingly asked us to look at the suite first, because it might not be up to our cosmopolitan standards. It was not, but it became famous for its memories and we even photographed our newest child in front of our room’s intricate, heavy drapery for his adoption announcement. The apartment was weird in much of its decor, yet actually, quite spacious. The staff could not have been more accommodating, telling us the ins and outs of the neighborhood amenities, and explaining how to ride the street tram. We took as much delight in observing their changing security guards who never dared to ask such glamorous guests for our room pass, as they did in having such mini-celebrities grace their environs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for luxury. It’s not as though we’re looking to slum it. BTDT in my younger, poorer days. However, when we stay in foreign apartments, the walls come down. We mix with the masses, and meander off the beaten track. That’s when we discover that the local Rostik’s offers delicious chicken shashlik on a wooden skewer, or a huge cup of soft ice cream for about 30 cents. Or, we end up in the market just before September 1st and each vendor wants to sell us black pants and white shirts for the first day of school.

Along the way, we’ve met interesting neighbors, workers, and dogs, especially. Another day, I’ll write about these colorful Russian characters, and the microcosm they represent far beyond the predictable perimeter of the big-box hotels.

As they say, think outside of the box. It’s time for some international adventure!

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