The Sunday Session

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In the morning I pour Victoria tea and find the last couple of Tim Tams to put with it.  “Hey thanks for letting me stay here last night.  I wouldn’t have been good company for anyone”, I offer as some kind of backhanded apology.
 “You were better off staying home last night, it rained most of the time and we ended up mostly being cold and wet, huddled under umbrellas”, she says sadly, before brightening up and continuing,
 “Did you find something to eat?” 
I’m sure I look guilty for a moment before answering,
“I found some pasta and used some random vegetables.  I’ll get some more today.”
“Oh from that jar in the front of the fridge?’
“Umm… the pickled stuff..yeah.”
“Oh don’t worry so much about that, it’s been there forever”. 
I smile and thank her again before heading out into the street.  I’ve just realised that I haven’t actually been inside the Kremlin itself yet and want to see the Armoury before I leave Moscow tonight.

I’m glad to visit it, the electronic audio guide I pay for takes me on a neat cruise through the rooms discovering the crazy array of weaponry, clothing, dinnerware and carriages that Russian royalty had enjoyed over time.  I haven’t seen a sleigh-carriage before and there’s a crazy array of them to choose from here.  By the time I finish the Armoury I’m eager to keep moving and return to Victoria’s apartment.  Whilst I’ve enjoyed my time in the city, I’m more than ready to leave Moscow.  The place hasn’t exactly captured my imagination, but Moscow was never the reason I wanted to come to Russia.  Those experiences lie on the other side of the Ural mountain range. 

I explain to Victoria that I will take my suitcase to the Sunday Session party and then go straight from there to the inter-city train station.  She suddenly realises and exclaims,
“So I won’t see you again!”
“Well, not for a while…..but I have something for your collection of stuffed animals and teddy bears.” 
On her windowsill, a coffee table and a desk of drawers in her room are an amazing array of these little keepsakes she has collected on her travels.  I give her a small Koala to add to them, to remind her she has to come and visit me in Australia sometime soon.  I then also produce a section of an enormous scarf my sister-in-law had made for me the previous Christmas.  Karen had spent a lot of time knitting it, capably assisted by my nephew and nieces as required, to remind me of my connections to the rest of my family.  The full scarf is well over five metres long, composed of different coloured sections made from different kinds and styles of yarn.  At one point we had it wrapped around all my family sitting around the loungeroom in Darwin.  Karen wanted me to take it on my travels to be my reminder of all of them.  When it was completely rolled up it formed a disc over twenty centimetres in diameter and over ten centimetres tall.  When I was leaving Australia, I cut off a section a bit over a metre long that was small enough to take with me.  My aim was to get pictures of my hosts and their friends to remember both their connection to me and for me to my family.  Victoria poses for a lovely shot wearing the scarf and her glorious smile.  With that formality finished we hug and I drag my suitcase into the street.

The Sunday Session is an Australian pastime to deal with the problem of wanting to have some beers with your friends, but not wanting to be hungover Monday morning.  So the answer is to start drinking around midday Sunday and finish up by nine to give you plenty of time to recover.  A couchsurfer from Perth, Ben, is living in Moscow and he’s arranged for a Sunday Session to happen at his apartment today.  After trying to find my way alone, I decide fate is pushing me to try a taxi.  Two drivers are sitting inside the second taxi on the rank sharing a cigarette sheltered from the rain.  I smile and say hello, in Russian, and hold out the piece of scrap paper I have written the address on in Russian.  They look at each other, have a brief discussion and decide who will be taking me somewhere.  My driver waves me to sit down and we lurch into the traffic, turning completely in the opposite direction to where I thought we should be going.  I’ve heard taxi rides in Russia can be a fun experience for foreigners, but since my own brief attempt to find my way met with abject failure, I decide to trust him for a while.  With his next turn we enter the street I’m looking for.  During this time I manage to tell him, in Russian, that I’m Australian, I’ve been in Moscow for one week and I like Russia.  He tells me it’s raining and that’s about as far as we get when he points at an apartment building with the number emblazoned on it. 

Ben meets me downstairs where he checks the paper sign he’s posted advising the Couchsurfing party is at this door.
“The babushkas in the building don’t like anything foreign or unusual, so when I‘ve done this before with a note in English, they’ve pulled it down within an hour.”
Ben’s apartment is true to the style I had already discovered, decrepit on the outside giving way to luxury inside the front door.  There must be a lot of work in doing renovations in this country.  I’m somehow relieved to be talking to another Australian, especially one from my adopted city of Perth.  I’m about to suggest I go for a beer mission when he shows me the slab of half-litre cans of Baltika 7 he’s acquired.  He smiles and says,
“No worries, there’s plenty here, if we need more later, we can just get them from the shops downstairs.”

I love his proper Aussie style and crack one open with him.  I’m running Moscow early, being exactly on time at four. 
“The other Sunday Sessions I’ve had here had people arriving from six or seven and staying all night”, he says.
“They don’t really get the idea of the session.”
 “Nope, but I kind of like their style too, they party like Australians.”
“They do know how to keep a session going”, I add with a broad smile, remembering Friday night’s madness.
“So what do you make of Moscow life then?”, I ask.
“I liked Moscow when I first arrived”, he begins thoughtfully,
“but after a few weeks I grew to hate it, everything’s difficult, it’s like the city hates you.  I’ve spoken to a few other people who’ve moved here and told me you go through a time of hating everything about it and then you seem to form a truce.”
“I don’t think I like this city, it’s just another big city to me.  Sure it has things that are different, but it’s still just another big city.”
“Maybe…I dunno…I wonder what I have left to eat?”.  He distracts himself, wandering into the kitchen to check the fridge.
“I have some vegemite with me if we want to make something Australian”, I offer. 
He smiles and says sadly,
“I have no bread”.  So with this patriotic need established, I stride off purposely to find some bread.

After walking for a few minutes I begin to doubt I’m even vaguely in the right place.  Nothing looks like it should and I keep looking back to his apartment block trying to find his window; hoping he’s on the balcony.  While searching for the apartment I realise it’s on the other side of the block.  Now oriented, I walk back and find the shop more easily.  This navigating within the nests of apartment buildings can be tricky.  Inside the shop I meet some of the people from Friday night while I’m acquiring the bread and a one litre can of Baltika 7 so I can get a picture of myself holding it. 

Nastya and Ben

Ben and I immediately set about preparing vegemite sandwiches for everyone, eating a few ourselves before switching into a mass production mode.  All Australians love to share this spread with everyone around the world, mostly for the incredibly distasteful expressions it normally causes.  It is an acquired taste and, for me, is best consumed with bread with butter.  Thus prepared, the two of us hand them out to the six or seven people who have arrived, waiting expectantly for their faces to contort.  They don’t.  They love it.  I’m lost for words.  Ben looks thoughtful for a moment,
“Oh yeah…I gave some to some Russians when I first got here and they liked it too”.  I shrug and keep making more as everyone tries and enjoys it.  This just isn’t meant to happen and I find myself wondering what it is in the Russian palate that makes vegemite such an agreeable option.  Only one person doesn’t like it so much, but doesn’t really mind it either.  I’m almost disappointed to miss out on the normal reaction, but at the same time I’m amazed with the unexpected connection with the Russian people.

The Sunday Session has begun in earnest and over the next few hours grows with more and more Couchsurfers and their friends arriving.  I spread the word about my eclipse chasing madness and discover that one of the girls there, Irina (who made the Irish Cream on Tuesday night), will be a part of a group who will ride horses through part of the Altai Mountains at the time. They will see Totality from a small village in the hills.  I’m impressed with her dedication to the cause and we agree to meet up afterwards to trade photos and stories.

Someone asks me what I think of Moscow and Russia.
“I like the Russian people but I don’t really like this city”, I begin and then pause, thinking how to continue.
“In so many ways it’s just another city.  I think when a city reaches a certain size it becomes its own country”,
“Moscow is not a Russian city”, Sasha the Siberian interjects, “I’m glad you’re going to visit the real Russia beyond the Urals.  Life is different there, people are different.  So many tourists only visit Moscow and St Petersburg and think they’ve visited Russia.”
There are nods and noises of agreement from all the Russians who are listening, even the Muscovites seem to agree.
“It’s not really a Russian city, but it’s still my city”, Irina adds.
 “I think there are plenty of cities that don’t belong to their country anymore”, I begin, thinking out loud,
”I mean, they’re still inside that country, but not any part of it.  London, New York, Sydney, Moscow and others.  It’s like they all belong some another country”.  It’s the first time I’ve really seen it this way and I start to wonder what kind of country it is exactly.

Nastya and Maya

Suddenly an exuberant redhead taps me on the shoulder and looks at me expectantly.  I don’t recognise her or know how to react until she says,
“Hi, I’m Natasha”. 
I surge from my seat to give her the hug Healey had asked me to pass on.  Formalities aside, I duck into the kitchen to the fridge to rescue the packet of Tim-Tams I’ve brought for her.  She is one of the Couchsurfing Ambassadors in Moscow and I especially want to meet her, since she knows a Couchsurfing friend of mine from Perth, Healey.  He’d stayed with her when they were both in Poland a few years earlier, so he had more recently entrusted me with a packet of Tim Tams to deliver to her personally.  She stashes them in her handbag and we shift to the balcony to trade news while she has a cigarette. 

Natasha and Sasha the Siberian

What follows is a long session of laughter, photographs and increasing madness as the beers take hold of the group.  At some point I fetch the small number of tiny clip-on Koalas I had put aside to give out today and make sure everyone that I’ve met more than once receives one.  Ben then puts his huge Australian flag across the door to his loungeroom, which leads inevitably to even more photographs of Natasha wrapping herself in it and posing salaciously.  One of the very cute local girls, Nastya, asks

“Do you have any more Koalas? I missed out before.”
She looks so sweet and forlorn it’s hard to refuse, but I look at my suitcase in despair. 
“I have some more, but it would take time to get them out…. and I need to keep them for the rest of my trip.”
She looks so sad, that I add,
“If I get a kiss, I’m sure I could find the energy.”
She withdraws at first looking shy, then both her and her friend, Maya, who also wants one, decide to provide the necessary encouragement.  Maya is a very beautiful young lady with huge, soft eyes that make me feel like I could drown a sweet death inside them.  Koalas suitably distributed I notice my scarf on top of everything and proceed to spend a long time taking photos of almost everyone wrapped in it. 

Natasha’s friend Anna and I have our picture taken together and Natasha thinks we look like we’re a good couple.  We immediately agree we’ve actually been married for a few years already and have been keeping it a carefully guarded secret.  We then pose for some more pictures to prove the point and I ponder that it has taken me just over a week to find myself a Russian bride.  Around eleven I start to pack everything away and then hear the sound of slapping and giggling coming from the entrance of the apartment.  I venture into the area only to have my arse suddenly slapped by two different women, one of them is Natasha.  Ben has explained to everyone this is an ancient Australian party tradition and I confirm it wholeheartedly by returning the favour.  After a frenzy of arse slapping madness we find eight or more people all standing against the walls between the doorway, the bathroom and the kitchen.  Every time someone ventures into the zone a solid slapping session commences leaving us all howling with laughter.  I realise I have to go and fetch my bags from the loungeroom to get them to the door.  Natasha and her friend, Anna, also have to leave.  So after lengthy goodbyes to everyone, I’m escorted back to the Metro station by my wife and her beautiful friend.

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