The year the communists stole Christmas

Camping out at the dark dawn of the new millenium in the heart of the forgotten gray wake of communism during the holiday season has its advantages. For one thing, while Christmas remains no more than an abstract idea and all the loved ones in honor of whom the good secular family theoretically celebrates it are eleven time zones away, the emphasis here lies on the non-religious holidays and New Year’s partying consequently benefits. Actually, here in China the Chinese New Year is much more important, although it’s more of a family holiday, like Christmas, and it’s two months away in any case, not enough to distract attention now. But in Russia New Year’s is the major event of the season (although technically they have their own separate traditional New Year’s as well), and I had the chance to experience it two years ago. I went to Beijing last weekend to celebrate the new year, and something about traveling through the bleak wasteland of gray communist apartment blocks in a headache-induced throb of self-loathing on Sunday afternoon reminded me of it.

When you’re a cheapwad student you don’t necessarily make a direct approach to the country you’re traveling to. Which is why I set off to Russia from Paris two years on December 19 in the direction of Glasgow. I don’t think I much resemble a terrorist making twelve stopovers in Africa on his way from London to Palestine (I was frisked in a supermarket once though), but since my final destination, St. Petersburg, was neither the the city I was currently standing in nor the next stop on my itinerary, the inevitable obese, snaggle-toothed customs agent (actually I don’t think he was obese or snaggle-toothed, but that’s the enduring image that remains to me from British airports and attaches itself like mildew to any specific recollections) naturally asked me if this was really the quickest way to get there, to which I replied: “It’s the cheapest.”

Since Ryanair, the discount airline par excellence in Europe, as a regrettable but probably necessary symptom of its laudable effort to offer airline tickets for less than $20, doesn’t seem to offer any flights between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., I spent the next seven hours after my early-morning flight sitting under a neon tribute to Robert Burns and trying to write the first three pages of an explication de texte for my French literature class that somehow had to be done by the end of the holiday break. That and be outraged by the “Scottish breakfast” which actually cost more than my plane ticket and represented the only available form of food in the airport. Followed by the evening flight to Stockholm, where I temporarily lost my backpack and became cautiously optimistic regarding my apprehensions as to how damn cold it was going to be for the duration of my stay in the sub-Arctic (answer: not as cold as Chicago in January).

Although following the Paris-Glasgow-Stockholm-Helsinki-St. Petersburg route is mainly a concession to tight-fistedness, the Stockholm-Helsinki ferry is almost a worthwhile trip for its own sake. It’s apparently known as the “vodka boat” and is full of drunken Finns and Swedes loading up on liquor in international waters where it’s cheaper than buying it from the governmental liquor store monopolies in their home countries (apparently Scandinavian teenagers actually like to take the ferry one way on Friday night and back on Saturday night). And singing weird folk songs in the karaoke bar. And if that becomes boring, you can, at least in the summer, always go out on the deck on the top of this 150 ft. tall tankard that you can’t even feel moving (my friend actually plowed right through a hurricane or tempest of some sort on the way back from this trip on the ferry and barely noticed the deck shaking) and watch the sun sort of almost set before coming back up again. Anyway, we bought a bottle of Grand Marnier for my friend’s grandparents with whom we would be staying and contented ourselves with a bottle of cheap wine, a six-pack of Carlsberg and a Toblerone bar.

After arriving in Helsinki and meeting up briefly with a Finnish guy we knew from high school, our adventures on the wonders of Russian public transport began. On a previous trip to Russia, a Finnish conductor had threatened to confiscate my rail pass for not having gotten it validated on the day I started using it. We joked about getting the same conductor again. Then we did. And naturally he wound up threatening to confiscate my friend’s pass for some minute date-entering error. However drinking 40 oz. bottles of Baltika in the dining car eased the pain.

Not a great deal happened our first few days, although at our arrival dinner my friend’s grandfather started drinking the Grand Marnier by the shot, which we calculated worked out to about 1 euro per shot. But my friend spent most of his time at the airport picking up other friends and family who were arriving separately, and I tried rather unsuccessfully to write my paper. It was entertaining watching he and other members of his family setting off to the garage/shed two miles away from the apartment, where they kept their car, with graphite pencils and a blow torch to thaw out the locks, in order to drive to the airport and pick up his mother, and returning six hours later (the airport was no more than 20 miles away). And we did experience some of the usual traveler’s rituals in Russia: standing on the frozen river, being chased across the bridge over the river by a band of mustachioed gypsy women, watching a bear tied to a stake outside while its owner huddled in his car nearby, and so forth. Somehow even the men selling Christmas trees near the Metro station looked vaguely underworld-ish (“businessman” is basically a euphemism in Russia). I came to see the bright side of lack of commerce regulation, though. When I lost my contacts, an optometrist’s office opened its doors for us after its closing-hour and sold me a fresh pair of lenses without a prescription. And we didn’t even have to bribe them. On the other hand, one of the saddest things I’ve even seen was the sight of old women and children barely tall enough to pull the levers pouring change into a bank of outdoors slot machines. I’m not sure which was worse: that they were playing in the freezing cold and falling snow, or that the money was probably that night’s dinner money for some of them.

Anyway, Christmas passed with barely any notice. I remember going to a bar where a very angry-looking Indian kicked on the door when I was in the bathroom, yelling at me to get out in bad Russian. Later, since he was wearing a Yankees hat, my friend asked him what part of New York he was from. The Indian then spent the rest of the night making throat-slashing gestures at us. On New Year’s eve we enjoyed a thoroughly soused dinner with the family (you can see our preparations here) in which I drank at least 10 shots of vodka and distinctly remember someone toasting Soviet housing. Next we headed to Dvortsovaya ploshad (Palace Square), the main square in the city, where we somehow managed to get to the front row of spectators by midnight even though we left the apartment, on the other side of the city, no earlier than 11:15. Then we spent the next hour weaving hazily down Nevsky Prospekt, the main boulevard, and shouting “S novim godom” (“Happy New Year”) at everyone we saw. I also clearly remember peeing on the side of a building, then looking up and noticing by the gilded window frames that it was actually a palace. And apparently I fell asleep doing it, or at least slumped prone against the building for several minutes. I would feel like more of a barbarian regarding the whole episode if I weren’t mainly amazed by not having been accosted by the bribe-taking, drunkard-beating Russian police. Since I was leaving on January 2 early in the morning I assumed this would be my last night on the town, and up to that point I had been very disappointed about, unlike previous trips, not having gotten any girls’ phone numbers (actually I gave mine to one instead for some reason that I no longer recall, but she never called me). So that night, after we had decided not to go into any clubs, since they were generally demanding about $20 cover charge, I remember feeling very sad and inexplicably crying myself to sleep. And then waking up eight hours later fully dressed. At least I was in better shape than another friend from New York who had fallen asleep upright in his chair with his cell phone in his hand while text-messaging his girlfriend.

As it turned out, my Russian friend had met a girl, who subsequently dumped him for the drummer in one of the most popular rock bands in Russia, and he wanted to go out the next night to meet her. Of course, since I had a 7:30 train the next morning, after that night I had just enough time to walk back to the apartment, collect my backpack and go to the train station. But I did meet some girls and get their phone numbers, which I subsequently lost, so it was all worthwhile in the end (at least psychologically). Then I slept for the next four hours straight on the train, simply holding out my passport without even opening my eyes the first time I heard a voice speaking Russian, and then holding out my empty hand to receive it back the second time. And then I wrote half of my explication de texte in the Helsinki airport (I flew back to Paris from there). I even got an 18 out of 20 on it (14 is roughly an “A”). All in all, a trip well-spent.

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