We land in Moscow for our voyage de reconnaissance, the obligatory 10-day trip arranged by Jul’s company to our next posting before the actual relocation, meant for scoping out schools, choosing a district to live in, visiting potential apartments, and whatnot. It is 10 days before Christmas, and about 18 degrees lower than Shanghai. Julien meets us at the airport; on the drive to the city I stare at the unfamiliar letters splashed across buildings and listen to the incomprehensible language blaring over the van’s speakers.
We head to the hotel, deposit our bags, freshen up. Jul, familiar with the city he’s been schlepping to and from for almost two years, suggests a nearby restaurant for dinner. We step outside and Jesus, the cold. But the city, it’s so pretty, with storefronts dressed in fairy lights and Christmas decorations. Not sure why, but this particular district seems to be inhabited by hipsters. I mention this to Jul. “It’s a great district,” he says, and while I don’t see the connection I make a mental note to revisit.
The next day we get down to apartment-hunting business. Our agent – tall, impeccably-dressed, blessed with smooth poreless skin, and totally stable on her feet given the heel height of her shoes – goes over the list of apartments she emailed me a few days ago, and tells me to be quick, ruthless, decisive. “You don’t like the apartment? You do this…” (she shakes her head imperceptibly) “…and we leave,” she says. Copy that.
The apartments we view are either absolutely kitsch (Roman columns flanking a bedroom, dreary wall tapestries), completely fictionalized (the visit sheet shows a modern and bright three-bedroom flat which in reality is a cramped two-bedroom joke), or downright creepy (drawn curtains, suspicious smells, an actual Harry Potter-like room). I find my head shakes to the agent getting more and more emphatic with each visit.
The next morning we have a free day, so we head to the Red Square. The colors are washed out against the gray envelope of sky, but impressive nonetheless. Snow starts to fall. We duck into the GUM shopping mall just next to it and order hot chocolates to warm us up. We head over to Chistye Prudy, where the French school is, and walk around to familiarise ourselves with the lay of the land. People are ice-skating on a frozen pond. Children are eating ice cream, which I find absolutely insane.
Back at the hotel, a few days later, I email the agent an apartment listing that looks promising, found on a local real estate website. After a few minutes she calls back – we can visit it the next evening.
We luck out. The apartment is on Trubnaya Ulitsa — a fifteen-minute walk from the Bolshoi Theatre, twenty to the Red Square. The street is lined with bars and restaurants, a pharmacy at the corner, numerous coffeeshops. Two metro stations in close proximity. There is a grocery store next door to the building. We enter and immediately I know this is it, and when I say this to the agent she smiles – the first smile since I met her – and says, “Is a good find, yes. I’ll work hard to get this for you.” Before the ten days are up, the apartment is ours.
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