You might have heard it said that dining out in Russia builds character. For tourists it's an exotic curiosity. For the small expatriate community in St. Petersburg it's a challenge solved primarily by a small cafe off Nyevsky Prospect, on Karavanaya St. called 01.
Established by a fire fighters' cooperative, 01 is the emergency phone number for fire departments throughout the former Soviet Union. Vova and Vitya are two identical twins who double as cloakroom attendants and maitre d's on alternate days. For months I thought they were one and the same person, and only concrete proof of seeing the brothers together convinced me otherwise. That they shared the same Finnish suit all last year added to the confusion. Each brother works two days on, two days off, but the poor suit never gets a holiday.
01 attracts an odd mix of tourists, trying to recoup from the day's "Russian experiences," expatriates, and indigenous gangsteri, a.k.a. bulls, a.k.a shaved-heads. Foreigners attract sideways glances, and spy novel stares from the native clientele. After a hard day of shaking down old ladies who peddle soda and cigarettes on the street, young racketeers with close-cropped haircuts, in their uniform sweat suits or business suits, settle down to tables for the evening. In spite of great pains taken to exude wealth and power, these 'good fellas' leave tips of less than 1%. On the last Monday of every month the back room of 01 becomes off limits, and the door is closed when the racketeer chieftains who control that part of the city meet. One half-expects Sidney Greenstreet in a fez to be swatting flies at his table in the corner.
One night Vova, or Vitya, sat me next to a lone, well dressed man at the table in front of the bar. Being seated with strangers is a custom foreigners are often forced to accept in Russia. Neglecting to converse with my neighbor, I wrote a bit while waiting for the Babovnik and Natasha, the feral wife of an old friend. She requested the meeting, saying she wanted to talk about something that couldn't be discussed over the phone. It's funny how many things in this country can't be discussed over the phone, and how many of those things involve handing out money.
The table cloth was extremely long, and I took a bit of it with me every time I rose to socialize. My neighbor, along in the evening, angered quickly, and accepting no apologies admonished me with stern looks. Eventually the Babovnik, followed by Natasha appeared. By that time the man next to me was thoroughly irate and soused. When he got up for something, I intimated to my companions that he was a Russian. This constitutes the expatriate's favorite game of chance, Name That Nationality.
"Not possible." the Babovnik protested. "Look at the way he's dressed, his shoes, look at his eyes." Natasha concurred with him.
"I've heard him speak. I think I know native Russian when I hear it." Bets were placed.
When our neighbor came back, we changed the subject, but when I got up to fetch some more drinks I disturbed the table cloth again. The man howled with indignation.
Strutting towards the bar I told my friends, "You see! I told you he was Soviet Man. Pay up."
During this period of reform, the word "soviet" has passed from a holy word to a pejorative. The man teetered to his feet, reached into his breast pocket, and drawled, "Who here is Soviet Man?!"
One summer's evening while hurtling along a mountain road around Franconia Notch, I popped up over a hump to find a full grown moose standing before me. About once a year some motorist perishes in just such a situation. My little MGB would not have fared well in a collision with a hare, let alone with a moose.
There was a brief but meaningful instant before I swerved the car. I felt it would be best to see first if the beast had a cool head or was inclined to do something stupid, before I went into my evade. The moose proved a cool customer and just stood there, assuring a happy ending for all concerned. My passenger later said the pause before the swerve was a bit too meaningful for him. It should be explained at this juncture that in contemporary urban Russia a nice suit is the mark of a gangster.
As I stood at the bar waiting with great anticipation to see what the gentleman might produce, the moose entered my mind for some reason, and from somewhere I thought I heard the theme song to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. The Babovnik stood off to his side, which has always given me reason for speculating what would have transpired had the situation become really ugly.
The Soviet Man pulled from his pocket proof of immigration, a French passport, the sight of which allowed my heart to begin its work again. It turned out that he was just lonely and wanted to be a part of our dinner discussion. Our lesson learned, the three of us politely obliged, while the phrase "Who here is Soviet Man?!" became an integral part of our lexicon. But our hero's story doesn't end here.
According to the Babovnik, Soviet Man the next day got into an argument with our mutual friend, Bweenya, over the existence of the US two dollar note. Soviet Man said there was no such thing, and lost a hundred dollars when Bweenya produced proof. For some reason the notes, which are a rarity in the States, are plentiful in Russia.
To add insult to injury, Soviet Man tied another good one on that night before leaving for the airport. It seems the strain of his homeland had gotten to him. On the way to the plane his driver rolled him for all his cash and luggage, leaving him on some country road to find his way. How my associates learned all this I can't say, but it makes for a nice story.