Russian Party Action with the local Couchsurfers

Blogger strikes again
Russian Beery Goodness.

I’m early for tonight’s couchsurfing meetup, so I distract myself within the inevitable cluster of pavement shops around the station exit.  I find one that not only has beer on tap, but they will sell it to me in large plastic bottles or even a half litre cup.  I’m forced to buy a cup of невское (Nevskoy), a beer from St Petersburg to see if it’s any good.  It is, especially on a sunny day.  I then spend the next fifteen minutes trying to identify people who look like a group of Couchsurfers.  This is a constant problem and a funny idea; there is no standard Couchsurfer.  We come from all walks of life, ages and attitudes; but all share the love of travel and the experiences that come with it.  I can’t see any likely looking group and send messages to the meeting organiser, Max, and Nikolai (who helped me with my train ticket), to see if they can help me.  I receive calls from both of them and shortly discover that neither of them can understand me very well over the phone so we can’t figure out what is going on.  I find myself crossing between the two Metro exits for the station wondering if I’m going to be able to find anyone.  It’s with immense relief that I finally recognise Max from his picture on the website and I call out his name to check.  He turns towards me and smiles, starting my first amazing night with the Russians.

In the meetup group there’s a French girl, a Swiss guy, two Kazakhstani girls and the other eight or so people are Russian and mostly from Moscow.  Now that we’re all together, we collect supplies (beer and picnic food) and then walk through a massive park that starts next to the train station to find our spot.  It turns out to be by a man made lake with an island in the middle filled with bird life.  This makes watching the sunset even more beautiful.  The circus tent setup on the other edge of the lake pumping out crazy hits of the seventies certainly adds a certain je ne sais quoi.  The Kazakhstani girls are pretty well Moscow locals now and they’re more interested in whether I have any Australian money with me than anything else.  I still have the fifteen dollars that I left the country with and happily give out the five and ten dollar notes.  They, like everyone else, are amazed that it’s made of plastic and looks like monopoly money.  For a moment they think I’m playing some kind of joke.  I also give them some coins, which are also passed around everyone to have a look at our Australian money and the crazy animals we have on it.

The Russians however, cause me consternation by knowing only one other thing about Australia.  It’s somewhere near this amazing paradise, a utopia they call New Zealand.
“Have there been some Kiwis…err…people from New Zealand visiting here this week or something?” I ask in bewilderment.
“No, no….we just always knew about New Zealand”, ventures Olya.
“So what exactly do you think is so perfect about New Zealand?”
“It’s warm all the time, it doesn’t rain or snow too much, the weather is so good…everyone owns a tractor and has their own farm…it’s really safe…and there’s plenty of jobs for everyone”
So this is Russian utopia.
“You’ve described Australia better than New Zealand, except the tractor part, that’s not even true in New Zealand.”
“Oh no, I’ve been talking to a guy from New Zealand on email and he told me everything”, she says defiantly.
I smile and appreciate the Kiwi’s effort.
“He just loves his country and wants you to visit.  So do I for that matter, but after you go there, you should visit Australia and discover the true paradise”, I say.
“New Zealand is not known for good weather or being warm, more for fantastically beautiful and mountainous countryside…oh and adventure sports.  You’re saying ‘New Zealand’ and describing Australia.”
“Maybe, I don’t really know, but you’re Australian, of course you like your country more, you’re just saying that.”
“New Zealand is largely further south than Australia and suffers from Antarctic weather much more.  A poorer economy means that half the people from New Zealand now live in Australia.”

She’s unconvinced, as are they all.  This belief in the New Zealand utopia seems to be held deeply and completely.  My views are absolutely baffling to most of them, so I invite them to go look it all up on the internet and see for themselves.  After all, it is a beautiful country to visit.  The hours evaporate with laughter as we all drink more beer and share stories.  The sun finally sets some time around eleven.  This is the cue for about half the people to start moving to catch their trains home, the last Metro is at one, so you have to start moving if you need to cross the city.

The plan had always been to move to Max’s apartment after the park, but I didn’t quite realise that would be around midnight, but go along with it anyway.  The group of us wander around a small supermarket in pairs and groups acquiring more beer and snacks.  We land back in Max’s apartment and the festivities continue.  Nikolai is telling me about his job doing scientific demonstrations for children.  We end up discussing the fun I’ve had making hydrogen from household ingredients and then exploding it in various ways.  I promise to email him the recipe.  This leads me to realise it’s now after one and I have no idea how I will get home.  Nikolai says I can just couchsurf his place that night when we decide to leave.  I send a message to Victoria who responds straight away saying it’s fine and to have a great time.

Olya and Max in a shirt made for two

I’m feeling very warm and happy, filled with nice beer and surrounded by good people.  I’m most amazed how natural it feels to be in this apartment surrounded by Russians and feeling completely at home.  After growing up with so many impressions of what the country and people must be like, it comes as a small revelation that they’re just like me; only speaking another language.  I think the singing begins when Max puts on a bunch of Queen songs and starts joining in.  Nikolai sings during a few songs and I lend my voice too.  This results in me singing a few more songs by myself and having Max ask me to quiet down; my voice is very loud when I get carried away.  Well, I did study it at University and have been known to break out into opera at inappropriate moments.
“Do one more proper opera song”, Tania, one of the locals, implores me.
“Well, I have one that’s both short, beautiful and not so loud”.
So it is that I sing Lasciatemi Morire in Russia for the first time.  It means “You leave me to die”.  This is the song I will sing during the Totality.  My own offering made at the end of my pilgrimage to see the dark sun.

Blogger strikes again
Nikolai Twinkletoes at work.

They love it and want more, but I promised to stop so, I grab another beer before heading to the balcony to talk to the smokers for a while.  Irina then brews up some homemade Irish cream for everyone, which disappears quickly.  Even Hanspeter, the Dutch guy, makes a break from his vodka consumption for it.  This is also a strange moment of realisation for me, the only person drinking vodka isn’t Russian.
“So why aren’t we all drinking vodka?”  I ask generally.
“Plenty of Russians don’t really drink it away from special occasions”, Nikolai advises me.  One of the locals decides she wants to dance and the dance floor is created in an instant.  The guys who know how to, take turns dancing different styles with her and a couple of the other girls.  So for the rest of the night we groove around the salsa, waltz and swing dancers keeping the party moving in the middle of the small loungeroom.  I find myself spending time on the balcony smoking the odd cigarette with the people there and staring out into the city.  The night view is beautiful. It’s of all the nearby apartment blocks giving way to the general city and is of a kind I can’t say I’ve seen before.  We trade stories of travel and dreams until the sky lightens with the first touch of dawn’s light.

Suddenly it’s five o’clock Wednesday morning and Nikolai and I aim to waft into the street to find a taxi of some sort.  Well, we do eventually make it out after many fond goodbyes, final dances and final drinks.  It’s around ten degrees at this time of night, after being in the low twenties during the day.  Finding a taxi is a curious process which involves flagging down some random man who’s driving past and asking him to drive us to Nikolai’s house.  Apparently this is quite normal here.  For three hundred roubles (AUD$15) we get home safely in the hands of a complete stranger.  Which leads me to mention the glory of the Russian people’s taxi service.

Every car in Russia is a potential taxi.  This is one of my favourite elements of Russian culture.  On the one hand I need a ride and will pay for the service, on the other I will trust in a complete stranger to safely deliver me home in the middle of the night, or anytime really.  I now have more faith in the Russian people’s taxi service than any business with the same role.  The longest we ever wait for a car in any city is five minutes.  That’s for a long trip with two dropoff points and we only have to ask three drivers before we find one who’s willing to do it.  I have never found a business capable of delivering nearly this level of convenience.  You also get to chat with an average person living their daily life, not someone who has been on duty for ten hours already and will be doing this six days a week.

Nikolai shows me a bed and one quick shower later finds me drifting off into a happy reverie.


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