To get in the spirit for Russia, and to educate myself, I’ve been reading a book called Moscow Mule. I thought it was a novel loosely based on a British man’s experience in Russia in the early 1990s. But since the main character’s name is the same as the author’s, I have cleverly deduced that it’s intended to be straight up memoir.
Author James Young describes rather humorously how unsmiling and depressive he finds most Russians, which has been our experience as well. The overall theme though, is that the reason they are so surly is because of what the nation had been through. And things didn’t get better as soon as Russia had access to shiny magazines and McDonald’s. There was a huge influx of goods that jacked up the prices of everything beyond what the average person could afford.
So I suppose I should be understanding then, when a waiter at a snooty restaurant is a complete dick to me. I was lured by charming fairytale tractor beams up the narrow cobbled stairwell and wrought iron railings festooned with fake ivy to Pectopah Genatsvale off the Arbat. We could tell it would be expensive, from the throw pillows on the chairs, hanging lanterns and champagne buffet in the center room. Since we just wanted tea and dessert, I was prepared for our server to be peeved we didn’t order more.
After pretending not to understand English, he asked, “Just one bliny?”
“Oh, does it just come with one? Is it small?”
“Okay then, two blini.”
He brought a plate of four, intended for us to share, which I would have written off as a language miscommunication, except I was annoyed enough to quip, “I thought you said they were small.”
Shaking his head like I was the biggest idiot ever, he said, “No, not small.” Whatever gave me that idea?
What could I do? Send two of them back? Risk international incident and refuse to pay? We couldn’t skimp on the tip, because that would just reinforce the cheapskate impression he already had of us.
I exacted my revenge by eating all four blini, leaving a decent tip on our $30 tea and bliny, and loudly knocking over the glass candle holder on the table as we left (by accident.)
Moving right along, allow me to tell you about three Russians who made me smile today.
1. We shared our overnight train cabin with two other beds. Next time, we’re getting our own cabin. The bunks seem narrower than they used to. Or else I’ve gotten wider. A strange, quiet man was the first to join us. He just sat across from us on the bottom bunk and looked at us. I felt awkward and escaped to the top bunk. We were joined by Katya, a friendly translator who was accompanying some Dutchmen to an antiracism conference. The Dutchmen were a few doors down and very concerned about her all alone. She said in English, “There is another woman. It will be fine.” I piped up, “She’ll be safe with us!” I liked Katya. She had a sweet voice in both English and Russian, and a genuine smile.
2. Upon arrival in Moscow, feeling disheveled, we dragged our bags on the metro toward our lodging. Rob has gotten my cold, and I was sweating from muscling what must have been the largest suitcase on the night train to Moscow (pictured). When we emerged into the fresh air, I had neither my bearings, nor a decent map of the city. The In Your Pocket pdf of St. Petersburg worked great, but the street names on the Moscow version are fuzzy. I asked a woman for directions, and she told me in a New Zealand accent that she’d only been in Moscow two years (although she was born there), so we better ask someone else. “I can translate.” I suggested nearby food vendors, and she said, “No, they’re immigrants, they don’t know.” Then she crossed a busy street to ask some policemen on our behalf, while we waited on the sidewalk.
3. Santa Claus lives. And is selling hand-painted matryoshka dolls on the Arbat. I already decided we’d be buying from him before I learned that his prices were competitive with the souvenir mart in St. P. So we didn’t mind when he interrupted Rob’s iPad photo taking by cheerfully pointing to a sign that asked people to please buy something small before taking a picture. Rob bought me a Christmas matryoshka and a little blue lady that jingles, and Santa threw in a Christmas ornament as a “present.”