One Night in St Pete’s

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We find our way to meet Alisha at a Georgian restaurant nearby the Hermitage.  I immediately look for the Bozbashi soup and order it with a shashlik board while encouraging Don and Lari to try the same.  Don spots the vodka on the menu, discovers you can order a bottle for the table and acquires one instantly.  Don pours a shot of vodka for all of us and we suddenly realise this will be our first vodka together in Russia.  So we toast to that, friendship and more vodka.  It isn’t as smooth as the average vodka distilled in Australia, but it is less than half the price at about two hundred roubles (AUD$10) for a half litre bottle.  Alisha reveals she really likes this place and it’s one of her favourite spots in the city.  I mention how much I like Georgian food and she points to the low, soft hat with a narrow peak over her eyes that she’s wearing,
“This is a common style for Georgian men.  I like it”, she tells me with a smile.
“So you’re really a man?” I ask impishly with my eyes widened in shock.
“No!” she explodes, “…but just like a Georgian man.” 

My beautiful Georgian man

With that she looks down and leans back in her seat to place a fresh cigarette slowly, lazily in the corner of her mouth.  Then she slowly lifts her face to look straight into my eyes with a devilish stare from underneath the peak of her hat.  I still call her my beautiful Georgian man.

The soup arrives and we all dissolve into foodgasms.  The combination of simplicity with spice provides a continuously memorable combination that always leaves me needing more.  Main course arrives and seems to evaporate somehow, maybe it dissolves in the vodka.  Feeling very full we sit back to let it settle as my phone rumbles to life.  It tells me one group of Couchsurfers are in a café-bar nearby and are inviting us to join them.  We aren’t ready to move for a while and we relax into finishing the vodka.  We three Australians settle the bill, refusing to let Alisha pay for anything.  She’s already helping us so much and we have to find ways to thank her properly for it; dinner is always a good option and she appreciates it with her typical lazy smile.

I’m a star, shining brightly in the night

We wander off to meet the couchsurfers and arrive at the outdoor part of a café bar to discover a German couple with a table of Russian friends.  About half are Couchsurfers and all want to know what three crazy Australians are doing here in St Petersburg.  We go through introductions and order beers as we take turns telling our stories of the Trans-Siberian journey.  When we tell them we will be in Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk for a week or more each, they all look shocked and ask why.  Don and Lari look at me, since I’d made that decision, and I lean forward conspiratorially, drawing them in closer to the table.
“Because they have cool names”, I announce prophetically. 
There’s a pause before they notice my evil smile and start laughing.
“Whilst that’s quite true, the real reason”, I further explain, “is more to do with the history of Yekaterinburg and the Total Eclipse happening in Novosibirsk”. 
I’m then forced to explain the gentle art of eclipse chasing.

After the beer and vodka, I suddenly feel like a cigarette again.  I have never been a smoker in any continual sense of the word, but suffer with many others the connection between drinking and smoking.  In Russia, almost everyone smokes all the time, so it’s always easy for me to find the odd cigarette to mix with a beer.  Now, since I’m no regular smoker, I much prefer something that tastes good to just anything that’s going.  Anything that can kill you that effectively has every right to taste damn good on the way down.  This is, of course, my justification for my next sentence to the barman,
“I’ll have a packet of those slim menthols, what are they called?”
“Vogue…it is woman cigarette…for woman”, he announces in stilted English and pauses.  Seeing no reaction from me he continues,
”You sure?”
“Yes…I am so deeply in touch with my inner woman that there are actually two lesbians inside me fighting for supremacy over my male side.”
Okay, he didn’t understand anything, but Alisha, who is standing next to me, can’t stop laughing for a couple of minutes.  In any case, for the rest of the night everyone decides that hassling me for my menthol cigarettes is pretty funny and my responses would make Julian Clary blush.

It’s now around midnight and we have another decision to make.  Should we stay up and watch the bridges of St Petersburg rise in the early morning?  If we stay in the city, we won’t be able to return to Alisha’s home until after six in the morning when the bridges close again and the trains restart.  It is one of the iconic sights of this city during summer, as traffic grinds to a halt with the spectacle of the sparklingly lit bridges opening to allow a constant stream of boats to pass through the sleeping city.  We can even do tours by land and water to witness this, but we’re thinking more of just finding a neat vantage point to watch it happen for free.  Alisha doesn’t care, she’s used to all night parties from her time in London and is happy to relive the moment here.  Our new friends are divided on the bridge watching, but we decide to stay up all night, maybe catch a few hours sleep in the morning and just keep going through to Gatchina in the morning.  A few of the other Couchsurfers join us in heading back to the river to await the moment.

The city at night is beautiful and we acquire some takeaway beers along the walk and settle in with the growing crowds along the riverside in front of the winter palace.  The bridges, the fortress, even the normal buildings and the Winter Palace are lit by coloured lights; creating a festival atmosphere.  We watch traffic stop on the bridges as the moment approaches and then we watch a line of boats cruising quickly down the river.  The first few are the low tour boats that can safely pass beneath all the bridges, but they are closely followed by freighters making their dash through the city.  We look at the freighters and the closed bridge and wonder if they’re feeling suicidal or something, heading straight for it.  We watch in wonder as a row of six boats passes by in a hurry and begin to wait for the clamour of the collision.  Suddenly Don’s voice rings out,
“It’s already open!”
We all lean out to see where he points and, sure enough, the last joint of the bridge near the shoreline is open.  We’ve missed the fateful moment.

The view is still damn good, but seeing the change would have been perfection.  The only solution is to cross back and join the other group in our first St Petersburg nightclub.  The nightclub is a converted classic building complete with marble staircase and lush, indulgent foyer.  Outside Don has scaled the wall to leave the painting he bought at the Hermitage on one of the huge window sills.  He figures this means it won’t get damaged inside.  I’m watching the group of bemused Russians who watch him do it and place a private one shot of vodka bet that it won’t be there when we come out.  Don and I find some vodka shots, toast St Petersburg and wonder where the night will take us.  All four of us churn through the introductions to the changed group of couchsurfers and friends and exchange short chats in-between the loud music coming from the dancefloor.

Don and I are watching one girl who is easily one of the most natural and sensual dancers either of us has ever seen.  We are both veterans of many music, dance and trance festivals and have seen our share of amazing dancers.  The way this girl moves is at once completely self aware, but without a trace of being self conscious.  She moves as an integral part of the music, not with it or around it.  She also broadcasts a confident sexual awareness that has every man in a ten metre radius absolutely enraptured; and she lives and loves every moment of it. 
“I’m not going to talk to the dancing girl.  I just can’t fall in love again in this country.  Today”, Don says with absolute certainty.
We’re talking about how we can find out where she learned to do that, and meet her, when one of the Germans taps us on the shoulder and says,

“Your friends are outside and can’t get back in”.

 We look at each other and out the door, where they are sitting on the marble staircase looking bored.  Apparently they went outside for a smoke and the bouncers want to charge them entry again.  We elect to have one more vodka and then discuss whether we should stay here and get onto the dancefloor or follow them.  We watch the magical dancer feel her way through another song, which pretty well makes up our minds.  Then I receive a message on my mobile from Lari telling me about the café they’ve moved to.  We decide we will follow the Germans to another club, but will find the girls first and see if they want to come along.

Don scampers up the wall outside, his long hair flying about him as he jumps back to the ground clutching his picture.  We slope through the busy streets to find the girls at another covered gazebo style café drinking coffee.  I order a bottle of champagne and we sit down to enjoy a calm moment in the night.  That bottle is definitely a mistake.  From the point of leaving the café after an hour or so, things are very fuzzy and indistinct.  I make them all stand for a photo pose outside after we leave. It takes me a dozen attempts to get a focussed picture with an autofocus camera.  The sun is already lighting the sky when we decide to separate, or more accurately the girls leave us to head for the train station.  Don and I make a solemn vow to find the second nightclub.  We bid them farewell and march off with arms around each other’s shoulders enjoying the night.  This is the first time we two brothers have been together in the same place at the same time for a long time. We live in cities a few thousand kilometres apart now, so chances to meet are rare and to be savoured.  We both knew extreme intoxication was inevitable, even though we also knew this was a bad idea in a foreign country where we don’t speak the language.

We spend the next half hour lurching up a canal while receiving directions on our mobiles from the German guy.  His girlfriend has gone home now, but he’s still out enjoying further refreshment.  We make it to the construction site he had been trying to get us to find and round the corner to see him standing looking exactly how we felt – muntered.  His face droops and his speech slurs badly as he lets us know he had just been on his way home.  Meeting us changes his mind and he accompanies us back into the club.  It has a beautiful wooden interior spread over a couple of rooms and a balcony through huge French windows.  It has floor standing candelabras that reach above our heads and the bartenders have no problems supplying more vodka to a trio of inveterate troublemakers.  I remember talking to different people who seem amazed that I’m Australian and standing in this club.  I even remember going rounds with Don ordering vodka shots – four at a time.  I also take a moment to buy another round of two shots to pay my private bet about him losing the picture; he still has it under his arm.  The sun is well and truly up by now and streaming in through those windows.  Our German friend leaves us and we last one more round before deciding we had better head for home before real trouble comes our way.

We stagger out of the club around six in the morning to be greeted with an overwhelming sight.  The Cathedral on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg’s answer to St Basil’s cathedral in Moscow, is directly in front of us across the canal.  Its appearance arrives as an invigorating revelation to our sodden brains.  Somehow we had completely failed to notice this incredible building on our way in.  Our cameras come out and we both try to capture the arresting beauty of the colourful onion domes of the cathedral shining in the dawn light.  Which is when the two policemen arrive and ask for our passports.  We comply as best we can, slowly and with long pauses to open money belts, as we explain we’re trying to get to the metro station.  When they discover we’re Australian, they tell us to go home straight away.  We agree completely and stand confused for a minute as they walk off, feeling particularly lucky that they let us go so easily.  We had both heard stories of visitors to Russia spending time in a lockup or spending money to avoid that threat, or both.  Feeling a new urge to return home we make it to a Metro station in record time.
I’m standing on the platform ready to catch the next train when I notice Don is no longer with me.  He is well known for wandering off randomly and at this time of morning I’m fading fast and can’t find him anywhere on the platform.  I decide I’m angling for home and keep my mobile in my hand in case he calls on the way. 

I lurch out of Alisha’s train station and onto the open square in front of it that leads to the marshrutka waiting zone when two policemen bail me up.  I’m unable to actually walk standing straight up at this point and I’m leaning heavily to one side, which is seriously hurting my lower back as I try to straighten up.  I’m guessing this is what alerted the wise detectives to my condition.  They stand evenly either side of me, both facing me on an angle, and demand my passport.  I’m feeling a lot less confident than the previous encounter; I’ve lost Don and probably used up my luck in dealing with the Russian authorities.  The pair of them are looking particularly severe as I pass it to them, wondering what I would need to be allowed to continue my reckless rampage.
“You’re Australian?” The first man exclaims to me in Russian, a broad smile covering his face.
“Yes, I’m an Australian man”, I manage to reply in Russian. 
It sounded good to me at the time and he seems to understand.  He passes my passport to his friend and both of them are now smiling broadly at me.  It occurs to me how much of a typical Australian yobbo I’m being.  My inner lesbians have utterly deserted me in disgust.  Here I am in a very foreign country on a trip I’ve been planning for a couple of years and it’s only taken two weeks to land myself fiendishly drunk in a discussion with some police officers about the situation.  I suppose I must be grinning like an idiot back at them by now and I have no idea what to do next.  They also don’t say anything I can understand.  I decide they must want something from me and enter a strange charade of emptying my pockets and handing stuff to them.  Each guy looks at it, passes it to their friend and then passes it back to me.  I can remember seeing the huge smile on the face of one of them as he opens my wallet and shows me the roubles left inside it, before handing it back to me again.  They ask me where I’m going and I point at the marshrutka queue and struggle to remember how to say “123” in Russian.  I settle at pointing at the one I need and say,

“That one”, repeatedly, in Russian. 
They step out of my way, hand me my passport and tell me to go home straight away.  Not believing my luck, I do exactly that and arrive at the apartment just half an hour after Lari and Alisha.  I tell them about the policemen, much to Alisha’s amazement and Lari’s horror, before I have another cold shower and pass out.

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