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This is Isabelle again. I’m sitting here writing this blog post from the comfort of a Wi-Fi-less, outlet-less economy class car on the Moscow-St. Petersburg speed train. But–hey–at least I got a window seat! I just had the depressing experience of saying goodbye to Father Roman and the rest of the Lowell Bell Ringers at the Leningradsky Vokzal (train station). As they journey up north to continue their bell ringing odyssey, I head straight to St. Petersburg, from where I’ll fly home to Boston. I’m nothing short of crushed not to be able to continue the trip, but I had to head home early to prepare for my semester abroad, which begins in less than a week.
Luckily, my time in Moscow at the Danilov Monastery ended on a high note, leaving me with only the happiest of memories.
We started out the morning the way that the next leg of a trip usually begins: by packing our suitcases, checking out of our hotel, and bidding adieu to the large framed photograph of President Putin posing in a wheat field, which hangs in the lobby. (Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photograph of it.) After indulging in the usual delicious continental breakfast served at the Danilovskaya Hotel, we walked over to the monastery, where Father Roman was waiting for us.
Today was a special day for the Russian Orthodox Church. On this particular Sunday, people celebrate the Transfiguration, a festival which marks the day when Jesus goes up to a mountain and is lit up with divine radiance. In honor of this holiday, there was a special morning church service, which was accompanied with a special bell service. We got to participate in ringing the peals with Gleb. Like yesterday, we got to ring the Mother Earth bell. (For context: at Harvard we call our biggest bell “Mother Earth,” but we learned that here at the Danilov Monastery the bell is called Bolshoi, which translates to “big.”) Jessica and Peter shared this responsibility; I decided I needed a little more practice before taking the risk of swinging the giant clapper inside the bell. After all, I didn’t want to ruin the peal–or die.
When the peal was over, we met Father Roman down in the monastery cafeteria for an early lunch. Since today was a special holiday, the monastery was serving fish, even though we are in the middle of a two-week period of fasting. And we did get served just any old fish. We had everything from solyanka (pickle soup) made of fish, fried whitefish, smoked salmon, and grilled river sturgeon. It was quite the feast; by the end of the meal, were stuffed (as usual).
Nursing our food babies, we hopped on a tram and traveled a short distance to the Flora and Lavra Cathedral, which is located not far from the Paveletsky train station. Gleb was our tour guide this time. First he took us inside the cathedral, which is currently undergoing renovations, just like many of the places we visited. Then we went up to the bell tower, where we got to play a few short peals. When we climbed back down to the base of the tower, we had an interesting conversation with an elderly security guard, who spent a few minutes lauding the United States and complaining about the meager pension he receives in Russia. Gleb deftly got us out of what could have easily spiraled into an hour-long discussion by explaining that we were in a hurry to get to our next bell ringing appointment–which was true.
Our next appointment was in the Kolomenskoye estate/park, at the Church of the Beheading of John the Baptist (yes, you read that correctly). Unfortunately, the bell ringer in the beautiful, white 16th-century church was absent. We had a look around, but didn’t manage to go all the way up to the bell tower.
To our great fortune, though, there was another church in the park where we were able to perform a few peals. In fact, our performance in Grigorievskaya Church ended up being quite a concert. Father Roman and Gleb played a couple peals each, and all of us had a chance to ring. I’m still quite a beginner, but each time I’m up in a bell tower, I feel even more determined to train so that next time I go to Russia I have something to show for myself. Reaching the skill level of Father Roman is probably an unrealistic goal, but I definitely have a lot of room for improvement. This particular bell tower was one of my favorites that we visited in the city. Perhaps it wasn’t the most beautiful or the tallest, but the cool breeze and sunshine, combined with an attentive audience listening on the lawn below, made for a particularly pleasant atmosphere. Though I’d been to Kolomenskoye before, this gave me a totally new perspective and appreciation for the place. I can’t wait to come back.
We barely had time to slurp down an ice cream in the park before it was time to return to the Danilov Monastery, where another holiday service was to begin. We were on the bells again at the beginning of the service, with a quick peal that wrapped up our wringing in Moscow. Then we relaxed for the next hour or so while the service went on. In Father Roman’s office there is a radio which broadcasts the service, so we could hear the singing of the choir, even though we weren’t in the Church. A few of us went down to the cathedral briefly to listen to the choir in person. I was quite tired, so I decided to stay upstairs, but Jessica, Dan, and Peter said that it was an impressive sight.
When the service was over, we returned to the cafeteria for one final meal with Father Roman. We were treated to yet another tasty dinner, with more fish concoctions: this time, we had fish pelmeni (dumplings) and fish cakes. And, of course, that was accompanied by bread, fruit juice, potatoes, pasta, and salad. HUDS, take note…
Our last little excursion of the day was to the Danilov Market, a circus/UFO-type concrete building which we had passed by many times, but had visited. Upon entering, I was expecting something akin to an open-air market or grocery store. Instead, what met my eyes was a massive, cavernous room full of charming little restaurants, cafes, and stalls selling every variety of meat and produce. The place was bustling with young people, eager to sample Chinese, French and Armenian cuisine, which consisted alongside food from Morocco and Korea. The atmosphere was busy, and the colors bright. It felt a bit like the Eataly complex in Boston’s Prudential Center–except cheaper and with more variety. The Danilovsky Market is just another example of the trendy, youthful Moscow that I saw in bits and pieces over the week. Though we spent most of our time in centuries-old church complexes and historical sites, the city’s modern side still made its presence known at every possible opportunity.
Hands (and bellies) full of sweet red currants, raspberries, and so-called donut peaches, we hurried back to our hotel. There, we collected our luggage and hailed taxis to the train station. And here I am, listening to the dulcet tones of a screaming baby in the neighboring compartment. Everything happened so fast, that I didn’t even have time to give Father Roman the Turkish delight candies I had saved for a goodbye gift. Looks like I’ll have to finish them myself…
I suppose this is a good time to make a quick summary of my time here in Moscow with the Lowell Bell Ringers. Or perhaps not a summary, but rather a final review. Overall, I had a great time on the trip. Despite being a bit under the weather for most of the week, I saw and experienced more than I ever could have expected. I won’t even begin to count the number of bell towers I visited or cucumber and tomato salads I ate. I’m incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in this exchange program. Not only was I able to get to know and benefit from the wisdom and good humor of Father Roman, but I alo feel that I was adopted in some sense into the Lowell community. I’m still a Matherite, but my allegiances are now certainly split. I also got to experience the incredible city of Moscow from a completely new perspective, which gave me a fascinating window into the history and cultural significance of the Russian Orthodox Church, and bell ringing specifically. Finally, I got to play a part in what I consider to be an outstanding example of people-to-people diplomacy and cross-cultural cooperation. At a time when relations between Russia and the United States are strained, this bell ringer exchange is important, because it shows how people can find mutual understanding regardless of a challenging political climate.
The other bell ringers have a few more days of adventure ahead of them, but this is it for me. Thank you to everyone who had a hand in making this trip a reality. I won’t soon forget it. I can’t wait until the Lowell bell tower reopens, and we can continue to develop our skills and spread our traditions with the rest of Harvard.
С благодарностью (with gratitude),