Podmoskovnye Vechera

Most of the first day was assembling my desk, getting the laptop put together and seeing that everything worked, and generally using both hands and a map to find my own ass. We had some external modems to dial into a local internet provider, but the fastest they could go over the scratchy Russian telephone lines was 2400 Baud. Enough for text email, and some Usenet. The laptops had internal modems as well, but we were warned against using them, as power surges in the Russian lines was common, and you would rather burn out an external modem than risk damaging the whole laptop.

At the end of the day, we packed up our gear, and Shane recommended that we go to a local Indian Restaurant that he knew of.

“Indian?” I was surprised, “why not Russian food?”

Shane replied, “It’s actually kinda hard to find Russian food in Moscow. Russians really don’t go out to eat much, and when they do, it’s for something other than what they can make at home. Indian is pretty popular right now, and I know of the best places.”

“How so?”

Shane continued, “I’m actually a travel writer. I just finished a bunch of reporting for the new Moscow edition and then I got hired on here.” Shane handed me a white book, a bound draft copy of his Moscow travel guide.

“Cool,” I offered him the book back, but he waved his hand to show me to keep it. “Thanks, but I thought you were a programmer?”

Shane laughed. “No, pretty much none of us here are that technical, that’s why you guys are here. Anyways, let’s get going, we can meet a friend of mine there.” Shane snapped his fingers, “I almost forgot! Irina! can we get some Perdiem?”

Oh yeah, our contract for this gig included a perdiem for food and expenses of $75/day. Irina came from the central office with a few envelopes.

“It’s easier if we give you guys a few days all together. Here’s $1,000 each” Irinia handed us each an envelope.

Wow. I looked at the cash in my envelope. I don’t think I had ever had $1,000 in cash before. It felt weird. Bob was stuffing some in his computer bag, some in his wallet, some in his sock. I looked at him confused.

Bob looked back, “if I get mugged, I won’t lose it all.”

Damn genius. I did the same.

We headed down to the car, and the driver was sitting on the hood smoking when we got there. Shane told him the place, and he tossed his cigarette, and got in. We all crammed back into the car and took off out of the parking lot with a lurch. The restaurant was around the other side of the Kremlin, not that far from our hotel, so Shane had him stop back at the hotel first, so we could drop off our gear before going out.

“After dinner, I’ll show you guys the best Irish bar in Moscow”

Bob looked over, “Irish Bar?”

Looks like the evening is picking up, I thought. A short while later we pulled in front of a fairly bright restaurant called DEHLI, and piled out of the car. The place sure looked good, and the smell coming out was fantastic. I hadn’t had Indian food before, but I liked curry, and the smell of smoke and spices that filled the street in front was terrific. Shane was talking to our driver for a bit, smiled, then our car sped away.

“I told Sasha to that that was it for today, we can taxi around for the rest of the night” Shane walked inside. We all followed. Once inside the smell of spices was intense, with waiters running back and forth carrying huge trays of, well I had no idea, but I was hungry for whatever it was. Across the room, someone was waving at us. “This way!” Shane yelled over to us, already halfway across the room, heading for the guy waving. We followed.

The guys stood up, “Shane, good to see you!” he looked a bit tired and pale, but in good cheer.

Shane introduced us, “Dave, meet the new guys at my office, Mark, Paul, and Bob. Guys, this is Dave. We worked on travel guides together.” We all shook hands, smiling. “I’m gald I was able to see you before you left, Dave.” Shane looked back at us, “Dave is heading home tomorrow!” Shane had his usual happy enthusiasm.

“Yeah, I’m glad to be heading back,” Dave sat down as he talked, “It’s been a while.”

Paul sat by Dave, “How long have you been here?”

“Three years.” Dave took a sip on his beer.

“You guys want anything special, or shall I order? I know the house specials,” Shane was flagging a waiter our way.

In unison, Bob and Paul said, “Beer.”

I shrugged my shoulders and agreed with the beer part, the rest was up to Shane. Dave looked over at us.

“How long have you guys been here?”

I had to think, “about four days…” things were starting to blur together. I couldn’t be sure.

Dave smiled, “What do you think so far?”

Our food and beer arrived, and we talked fora while on what we thought about Moscow in general, the really amazing architecture, artwork, history. How impressive the Metro is, and how strange the bureaucracy of leftover Soviet institutions seem. But overall I ad to say, “It’s amazing, I love it here.”

“Well,” Dave was looking at all three of us, “it will take you thirty days to learn to hate Russia, I mean really hate it. Then another thirty days to love it again. Then you will really be in Russia.”

It was the weirdest thing I had ever heard. And I really didn’t understand.

Dave continued, smiling, “God, I love meeting people who just got here. You all look so fresh and excited, not gray and beat down buy the pollution and radiation yet.” He got up to go, “You guys have fun, enjoy Russia.” And he left.

Radiation?

Shane piped up again, “So how about that Irish Bar for more beer?”

After the odd gloom of Dave’s last comment, more beer sounded good. We headed out of the Indian place, and went out front to catch a taxi. As we learned from Shane, everyone in Moacow worked as a taxi for extra cash. So you basically waved down any car you could. There was a proper way to do it though, if you just whistled or waved your arms in the air, you got ignored. If you wanted a taxi, you stood at the side of the road with your arm down at about a 45 degree angle, and your palm open. It was weird, but a car stopped right away. Shane leaned in and told the driver were we were going, and they agreed on a rate.

We weren’t going too far, The bar was called Rosie O’Grady’s and was right across from one of the Kremlin Gate. We were there in just a few minutes, and from the outside it looked like any Irish Bar that you might see, so it really stood out when compared to the gray soviet architecture that surrounded it. It was less like a neighborhood bar and more like an invasion craft sent from Ireland to take over. I expected leprechauns to spill out at any moment.

We went up the stairs and through a big oak door. Everything was brand new, but designed to look like and older Irish bar. Oak bar, polished brass, Gunness and Harp signs and tablewear, the works. I noticed right away that everyone was speaking English, with either American or British accents. I also noticed that there just weren’t many Russians here.

I looked over to Shane, “Not a lot of locals, eh?”

“Yeah, considering that the average monthly wage for Russians is about $100, these places are pretty unaffordable. ” Shane guided us around and found a table off in the corner. I thought for a second before realizing that our daily perdiem was close to a Russian’s monthly salary. Dang. We plunked down and ordered up a couple of pitchers of Guinness and some snacks. It was surprisingly relaxing to be in familiar surroundings, even if they were fake.

As we hit the bottom of the first pitcher, Shane waved a couple of more people our direction. “Mike! Laura! Come on over here!” Shane looked back at us, ” Guys, here are a couple of our coworkers that weren’t in the office today. I want you to meet Mike and Laura.”

The way Mike was hanging on Laura it was obvious that they were a couple. Laura was friendly right off the bat, but Mike was pretty reserved.

“Hey Shane, Hi guys!” Laura pulled up a chair and sat down. Mike stood behind her.

“How was Estonia?” Shane asked. Apparently they had just gotten back from vacation to Estonia, and proceeded to give us a detailed story about it as more beer arrived. They worked for our company as well, and were journalists by trade. They stayed for a few more minutes and left, and Shane got up shortly thereafter. “So you guys think you can catch a cab back to the hotel?”

“No worries Tovarisch!” Bob piped back. We had Shane’s instructions on how to do it, should be no problem. We figured that we’d have a few more beers, and head back. At worse, we could always take the Metro.

A few beers turned into closing the place down. We were hammered, and the last to leave. The owners of the bar were our best friends in the whole world. and we wanted to hug them and thank them. Standing and walking turned out to be a sufficient challenge, so we left it at that. We staggered down the stairs, and went to the street to catch a cab.

Nothing. The city was empty. We were on a bit of a side street, so we thought that moving closer to a main street might help. We walked down the block towards the Kremlin, onto Okhotny Ryad, the main street.

Empty.

We stood on the curb, holding our hand out into the empty air for a while until our sodden brains figured out that this was futile. We crossed the street into Alexander Gardens and began walking to the Metro station. The gardens were alongside the Kremlin wall, and were part of the old moat that went along the side. One of the entry towers to the Kremlin goes over the gardens, just like it did when this was for defense. We passed under the tower bridge, out the gardens near Red Square, and went up the the Tetralnaya Metro entrance. This was the green line and would take us straight home.

And it was closed. The metro closed at 2, and our long walk through the gardens had taken too long to make it in time. We stood at the metro doors for a bit, not really sure what to do. The long walk had worn down some of the Guinness, so we were feeling a bit less invulnerable, As we figured, we were looking at a long walk across Moscow to the hotel, hopefully finding some fool along the way to pick us up and taxi us the rest of the way before we collapsed.

Along the road were a whole line of Kiosks, all shuttered for the evening, so we couldn’t even get a beer for our walk. We started down the road when Paul looked back.

“Hey,” Paul tugged on Bob’s arm, “look! someone is still open.”

I looked and saw that one kiosk way down the street had lights on, and a guy was standing out front. “Let’s go, my watch says Beer O’Clock” I was willing to walk across Moscow, but hell if I had to do it sober. We trudged down the road toward the kiosk. It was odd seeing only one kiosk open among the whole army of steel boxes lining the road. We got to the kiosk and saw a short Russian standing outside, smoking, talking through the window to a black guy inside who was running the kiosk. I hadn’t realized it until then, but this was the first black person that I had seen here.

We walked over, and the Russian puffed his cigarette and nodded at us, “Privet”

“Privet”

“Privet”

“Hi there!” Paul spoke no Russian at all. “How you guys doin?” Our cover was blown.

From inside the Kiosk, “You are Americans! Hello!” He spoke with a thick, melodic, African accent.

“Hi. Where are you from?” I asked.

“I am from Nigeria, I am an exchange student here,” he held out his hand, “My name is Mubarak.” He had a slight British accent in his English.

I shook his hand. “I’m Mark, this is Bob, and Paul. We’re from Seattle.”

“Seattle! Yes I know that, where there is Nirvana. Very good music.” Mubarak turned and spoke in perfect Russian to his friend, then looked back at us, “This is Sergei, my friend from MGU”

Sergei spoke no English, but smiled and shook our hands. We bought a few beers and told Mubarak about coming to work in Moscow, and he told us about being a student at the university. Apparently a lot of African universities had exchange programs with Moscow State University, and he was loving studying in Moscow, Even if it was a bit colder than home, he joked.

Sergei lit another cigarette. Paul had kind of quit smoking when we left the states. “Kind of” meant that he wasn’t buying any cigarettes, just bumming them off people. He made the international finger wave of “May I have one of your smokes” to Sergei. We were all a bit surprised. Not because it was rude to ask for a cigarette, no, that was fine. We were shocked becaus Paul didn’t realize what Sergei was smoking. These weren’t western cigarettes, these were Soviet era “Belamor Kanal’s”. Bob and I recognized them right away, since we had taken Russian language for a few years, and you pick up a lot of the culture when learning a language, but Paul had no clue.

The Belamor Kanal is the only cigarette in the world named after a forced labor project, and the cigarette is an insult to the project. It is 1/3 tobacco and 2/3 filter, but the filter is just a cardboard tube that you pinch at one end so you don’t inhale any loose burning tobacco. They are harsh, smelly, but really really cheap. Puffing on a Belamor Kanal is to regular smoking is what getting tazered in the crotch is to making sweet, sweet love. So we were all watching Paul with anticipation.

He didn’t know to pinch the tube to make the filter, and drew straight in. You could tell by his eyes that this was not what he expected the cigarette to be like. He coughed a little, choking on the smoke. Being an extremely polite person, Paul didn’t want to show that this cigarette was killing him, so he forced a smile. “Than-” His airway was reflexively closing in an effort to save his life. He pounded his chest to breathe again, “Thank you”

We were all giggling at this point, and Sergei was loving it. Mubarak rolled his window closed, and came around from the side door of the kiosk with a bottle of something and some cups.”Work is done. Time for a drink!” he held the bottle up. “Please, try some it is my favorite” and he poured out a shot for each of us. I looked at the bottle – it was a bright yellow label and some kind of Banana flavored liqueur. It didn’t look promising, but we were not the types to turn down a toast.

Mubarak raised his glass and toasted, “To Mubrnehmarmmer!” I couldn’t actually make out what he said, but just smiled.

Paul repeated what he heard, “To Motherfuckers!” and raised his glass.

“No, No,” said Mubarak, “to Mother and Father

Paul, unfazed said, “Well that’s good too!” and we all drank. The banana stuff was as nasty as I imagined. a siclky sweet syrup, but it actually went down really easy. Drinking something that was easy in the stomach was probably a good plan after a long night of curry and beer. We kept toasting and pouring until the bottle was gone. We we all started walking away, Bob asked Sergei, in Russian, if he knew where we could catch a taxi. By luck one of Sergei’s friends was close by with a car, and agreed to take us back to our hotel for $10. We shook hands with our new freinds and left.

Once back in the hotel lobby, Paul spoke. “You know, I liked my toast better.”