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A Yank in Russia: Wild Parties, Weird Letters and Wonderful Hats
The common wisdom is that people from warm climates like to party all night and people in the cold turn in early and sleep.
I quickly found that nothing could be further from the truth.
Muscovites are the wildest party animals in the world after dark. They make New Yorkers look like the inhabitants of Mayberry. Don’t expect to get anywhere at 3 or 4 in the morning in Moscow. That’s party rush hour. But I get a wee bit ahead of myself.
I was still eating ice cream downtown at 9PM when I realized I was tired. It was time now to walk back along Tverskaya Boulevard to the Sleepbox Hotel, brush my teeth to the rhythmic thumping of “world music”, and shoehorn myself into my cubicle. That was the plan.
However, the streets were jammed with cars, I made a wrong turn somewhere, went under the wrong tunnel (in Moscow the only way for pedestrians to cross certain busy streets is by going underneath them) and got lost. I regained my bearings only when I saw the friendly caricature of Colonel Harlan Sanders on a sign. Good ole KFC. KFC’s are everywhere in town but this particular one was next to a large statue of a personage named Stanislavsky. I had passed it five times already and knew to turn there. The glories of sleep were soon to come!
But the hotel happened to be next to a jazz nightclub, and I heard every drumbeat, horn-blow and guitar-strum until 5 in the morning. Around 3 I gave up, put my clothes on and went outside to see what was happening. There was bumper-to-bumper traffic on the boulevard and a line of 20-year-old girls with bleached hair and cigarettes still trying to get into the club. This was too much for me. I returned to my cubicle, put three pillows over my head and slept.
The next afternoon I had an engagement of my own. I had struck up an acquaintance with someone who wanted us to meet for lunch at the Tchaikovsky Café in the basement of the concert hall of the same name. “It’s really easy to find,” I was told by the Russian acquaintance. “Chee-kov-skee is die-rectly across from KFC!” I must have walked by the building four times before the haunting Cyrillic letters above the high columns finally made sense to me: П. И. Чайковского. “Oh, DUH!” I scolded myself. “That means: P. I. Tchaikovsky!”
For three days I had been utterly bedeviled by the bizarre hieroglyphics of the Cyrillic alphabet I had been seeing. Headaches, nausea and occasional feelings of masculine inadequacy had begun to plague me. But then my new friend gave my manhood a much-needed boost. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “You’ll never learn it. There’s no point in even trying!”
I felt obliged to visit the tomb of the late great Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Владимир Ильич Ульянов), a.k.a. Lenin (Ленин) in Red Square, but 8 million people had the same idea. The line stretched halfway to Vladivostok. I deferred the pleasure of the queue and opted instead to try to enter St. Basil’s Cathedral, but it happened to be closed that day. Finally I found a small bridge over which was one of the most beautiful bits of urban artistry in the history of man: a line of artificial trees covered with locks for leaves. The Russian soul of creativity has never been more original.
Night was falling now, my last night in the land Churchill once called “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” The town looked like a fairyland still, and I couldn’t believe that what I was seeing was real, so different it was from anything in my native part of the world, so exotic, so bizarre, so utterly enchanting.
When it was totally dark I realized I hadn’t yet gotten any souvenirs of my trip. My cheap and tawdry American soul couldn’t resist the idea of taunting the poor deprived bumpkins at home who had never ventured to such a place. I still had 600 rubles in cash in my pocket. This translated to about thirteen dollars. In a cramped shop underneath an ancient cathedral fronting the Square I saw just what I was looking for. Something cheap, crass and totally Russian. A formidable ushanka hat with the emblem of world domination on its front! And it was only 590 rubles!
I later lost the damn hat on a bus in Budapest, but that is another adventure for another time. My Russian friend deplored its synthetic gaucherie anyway, but the memento is forever immortalized in digital imagery.
© 2015 James Crawford