Monday, March 28, 2016
THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Euro ’85, Part 31 … Leningrad in three vignettes.
A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
(Thirty-first in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)
Leningrad, August 1 – more than a month past the peak nocturnal glow of northern lights, but with ample illumination to occupy roughly 70 hours in the USSR’s hero city.
Upon arrival the group was issued rudimentary maps, fed a brown bag snack and taken back aboard the bus for an orientation drive. We weren’t compelled to remain there. As adults, there were no restrictions on our activities, apart from remaining within city limits and refraining from illegality.
Consequently, as soon as opportunity came, Mark and I left the tour bus. By early evening, we were exploring the general vicinity of Nevsky Prospekt, Leningrad’s major downtown street.
Mark regaled me with tales of his travels. He’d bartended his way across the English-speaking world before diving headlong into continental Europe. In return, I spoke to him of Russian history. Ironically, we decided against finding beer, and set off for ice cream.
Ice cream was acclaimed as one item the Soviets invariably got right. We found some at a curbside kiosk, tucked away on a side street. It was very quiet, and two Russian women roughly our age were in the mid-sized queue next to us.
Waiting afforded the garrulous Australian an opportunity to chat with them, a task only slightly complicated by their limited English skills and his non-existent Russian.
This comical cross-cultural conversation continued as the four of us ate our ice cream. My friend’s ultimate aim was obvious, though it struck me as far too surreal to ponder.
There was a pause. Mark proposed a drink, and quickly took me aside, whispering: The petite brunette was his, the taller redhead mine, and the petty details – time, place, requisite small gift – all could be arranged quite easily once matters progressed a bit further.
Glancing over my shoulder, I could see a similar conversation taking place. The brunette doing was doing most of the talking, and I was flabbergasted. In a scant 30 minutes, after only three hours in an utterly unfamiliar city, Mark had pole-vaulted the language barrier to achieve instantaneous hook-up results. He was a handsome charmer, but this was beyond amazing.
Unfortunately, nothing about this carnal Communist four-poster of an ice cream-laden windfall appealed to me. I wasn’t a prude, but merely favored prudence.
“Let’s get to know each other” seemed solid advice any time, much less in a totalitarian country. Earlier in the summer, there had been an evening in Athens with the girl from Switzerland. We’d met at the hostel in Delphi, hiked to the ruins together, and shared seats on the train. She spoke English. We talked while she knitted. Pell-mell is not my default speed.
In Leningrad, Mark’s dazzling improvisation seemed like a transaction. I feared my disinterest would be a deal-breaker, except that in truth, my intended partner looked almost as unenthused. Perhaps she had come to the ice cream kiosk to eat ice cream, and not be randomly assigned a date.
The Australian was surprisingly conciliatory. It wouldn’t be a problem, he said. They left in search of alcohol, and I walked back to the hotel, viewing Leningrad in the gloaming, off the beaten path.
On Friday the story was told. The redhead went home to her children, and the brunette took Mark to meet her husband, who thoughtfully watched television in the main room of their flat, discretely drinking the bottle of vodka brought to him from hard currency shop, as she earned 20 dollars American … a week’s salary.
The Peter and Paul Fortress occupies an island in the Neva River. It is the birthplace of St. Petersburg from 1703, as commissioned by Peter the Great. Inside the fortress, the Peter and Paul Cathedral is one of Russia’s most important Eastern Orthodox churches, a landmark housing the mortal remains of numerous Tsars.
On Friday, two accredited Intourist functionaries accompanied the group for sightseeing. The ranking guide was a woman in her late fifties, and her assistant was a younger woman who served as English interpreter.
Among us was a quartet of Swiss high school history teachers, two men and two women. One of them looked rather like Phil Collins, 30-something and balding, and already his barbed asides had marked him as a man of considerable wit.
In short, Phil crisply supplemented the guide’s talking points with revisionist commentary of his own. Already that morning at the Winter Palace, he’d been overheard loudly correcting the official historical record, and consequently was a marked man.
There’s one in every capitalist crowd.
Now, inside the Peter and Paul Cathedral, our guide spoke about the Romanov imperial dynasty, scrolling through a list of kingly burials. Each was repeated by the interpreter: Nicholas I is buried there; Alexander II is interred here, and so on.
Are there questions?
Phil raised his hand. He was ignored. Two pairs of eyes darted left and right, hoping someone else would speak instead. No one did, and at last, Phil was allowed to make his inquiry.
“Can you tell us where the last Tsar is buried?”
It wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that Phil took the Leningrad tour for the sole reason of asking this most politically incorrect of questions.
You see, while any Communist tour guide was happy to explain the symbolic necessity of deposing the imperial order as a prerequisite for social justice, in 1985 the Soviets had yet to come clean about the last Tsar’s messy personal end.
Nicholas II, his wife and their children were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918, their bodies thrown into a pit near Ekaterinburg, perhaps 1,500 miles from St. Petersburg, subsequently renamed for V.I. Lenin, who gave the orders for the killings.
Amateur Russian sleuths apparently located the Tsar’s gravesite around 1979, but positive identification of the victims had to wait until after the USSR’s own demise.
Of course, the whole world always knew the truth. Phil’s question turned the interpreter’s face white and very hard. She turned to the guide and spoke Russian. The guide’s face became just as stony. Briefly, they both glared. There was a pause, and a collective shrug.
“He is not buried here.”
“I see,” said Phil. “Thank you for answering.”
It isn’t that Leningrad’s inhabitants didn’t dine out. Many received their main meal at lunchtime, as served at their workplaces, and they also took quick bites at any number of “people’s” or “worker’s” cafeterias, many serving soup, potatoes and dumplings.
As a guidebook colorfully stated, these eateries were “dirt cheap and dirty,” and in later years, I became enamored of their conceptual cousins in Eastern Europe. Parts is parts, sausage never scared me, and the cafeterias in Hungary punched far above their weight for the price.
Soviet “sit-down” restaurants comparable to the sort Americans were accustomed to seeing by the half-dozen at every interstate interchange were regarded by ordinary Russians as places for special occasions, like weddings and anniversaries.
Above a certain classification, formal restaurants had the reputation and appearance of being inaccessible to normal human beings. In essence, all their seats were reserved, always.
There’d be a sign stating the restaurant was entirely booked, even though a glance through the window showed most (sometimes all) seats empty. A doorman would guard the door as though he defended the vaults at Ft. Knox.
Only later did I learn the key to breaking the code, because in fact, anyone could phone the restaurant or visit earlier in the day and make a reservation. It was that simple. However, in the beginning this wasn’t evident. The game was all about bribing one’s way inside.
Hence the value of western cigarettes and toothpaste.
Saturday, August 3, 1985 was my 25th birthday, and when Mark found out, he couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. A splurge was merited, and my meal was his treat. We’d heard about Baku, an Azerbaijani restaurant on Sadovaya Street, close to Nevsky Prospekt, and arrived there hopeful of somehow gaining entry.
Mark took the lead and was rebuffed by the doorman. He failed a second time, bruising the worldly Australian’s machismo. At this moment we were approached by two English-speaking Russian men (brothers, they said), who offered to help resolve the impasse.
I was wary, but a few words later and all four of us were inside Baku. Our new friends sat with us. They denied ulterior motives, and said eating was their only objective. It would be a rare treat to break bread with foreigners.
To this day, I’ve never had a clear understanding of who they were. No black market transactions were requested. We weren’t fleeced. The two men made no advances of any sort. Rather, there was wide-ranging and bracingly frank conversation over our meals and bottomless vodka – at least until the bottom fell out for Mark.
I recall the food as being fairly exotic, with actual green salads made from strange indigenous stalks, weeds and veggies, and a garlicky chicken dish as the main course.
The drinks list at Soviet restaurants tended to be slim; perhaps juice, mineral water, sparkling wine and vodka, though seldom beer. Vodka was the choice, leading to my first experience with timeless travel wisdom.
Attention: Do not try to keep pace with Russians drinking vodka.
You might die in the attempt.
They’ve been doing it since they were babies, via tubes inserted through their swaddling. That night at Baku, I watched as Mark ignored this axiom. He paid dearly.
Seeing the direction we were traveling, I resolved to keep a clear head. It wasn’t hard to do. At that stage of my drinking career, straight liquor of any sort was a touch too much for me.
In the end, Mark dissolved into an Aussie puddle of vodka-infused goo. Fortunately, our chivalrous Russian partners took nonchalant control of the situation, helping settle the bill accurately, getting Mark into the street for the necessary vomiting, then hailing a taxi to get us safely to our hotel.
Did these exemplary strangers really come with us to Mark’s room for a nightcap, or am I dreaming?
They simply had to be KGB. There is no other explanation.
Next time: Buses, boats, trains and the road back to Luxembourg.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 30 … Or, as it was called at the time, Leningrad.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 29 … Helsinki beneath my feet, but Leningrad on my mind.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 28 … A Finnish detour to Tampere for beer and sausages.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 27 … Stockholm's blonde ambition, with or without mead-balls.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 26 … The Hansa brewery tour, and a farewell to Norway.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 25 … Frantic pickled Norway.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 24 … An aspiring “beer hunter” amid Carlsberg’s considerable charms.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 23 … A fleeting first glimpse of Copenhagen.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 22 … It's how the tulips were relegated.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 21 … A long day in Normandy, though not "The Longest Day."
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 20 … War stories, from neutral Ireland to Omaha Beach.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 19 … Sligo, Knocknarea, Guinness and Freddie.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 18 … Irish history with a musical chaser.
The PC: Euro '85, Part 17 ... A first glimpse of Ireland.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 16 … Lizard King in the City of Light.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 15 … The traveler at 55, and a strange interlude.
The PC: We pause Euro '85 to remember the Mathäser Bierstadt in Munich.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 14 … Beers and breakfast in Munich.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 13 … Tears of overdue joy at Salzburg's Augustiner.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 12 … Stefan Zweig and his world of yesterday.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 11: My Franz Ferdinand obsession takes root.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 10: Habsburgs, history and sausages in Vienna.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 9 … Milan, Venice and a farewell to Northern Italy.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 8 … Pecetto idyll, with a Parisian chaser.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 7 … An eventful detour to Pecetto.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.
The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … Where it all began.