From Russia... with resignation
James Bond never had a problem order- ing a martini anywhere in the world, including Russia. The only instruc- tion he had to give was, “Shaken, not stirred.” We are just back from a ten-day visit to St. Petersburg, and let me tell you, getting a martini there is no easy feat. On the first attempt, our waiter asked us if we wanted red or white. We said white, figuring, correctly, that the question referred to the vermouth (Martini & Rossi). The waiter came back with a glass of vermouth. So then we tried to explain that a martini was gin with a little bit of vermouth in it. The waiter took away the vermouth, and brought back a glass of gin. We were afraid to ask about olives for fear that we’d end up with a dish of olives and no martini at all. From then on, I only ordered wine or beer, but Alec kept trying, with similar confusion and always ending up with the inevitable gin, straight up. The one exception was when we splurged and had cocktails at the Grand Hotel Europe, where the bill came to about $40 for a glass of Spanish rosé and a perfect Hendricks gin martini with olives – bar snacks included.
We were there visiting our son and his girlfriend, and trying to have a typical Rus- sian holiday, as opposed to a Viking River Cruise-type holiday. We had been to St. Pe- tersburg once before, in November of 2011, so we didn’t need to revisit the Hermitage or St. Isaac’s, or other must-see museums and cathedrals, and were able instead to do the things Petersburgers do. We got around on buses, marshrutkas (commuter vans) and the metro. We ate lots of pickles and cucum- bers, little plates of sliced cheeses and cured meats, blini, salted fish, meatballs, and sour cream...on practically everything. We (and by “we,” I mean our son Gus) ordered pushki (delicious, hot, airy donuts sprinkled with powdered sugar) from a very severe woman who doesn’t even look up to take your order. She just says, “I’m listening,” and you tell her how many pushki and pay as quickly as pos- sible because the line is out the door.
We were there during the White Nights, the longest days of the year, and the sun never really set. It would get a little dusky from about midnight to 3 a.m., but when we left for the airport at 3:30 Monday morning, it was daylight, and people were still out on the streets. Petersburgers walk everywhere, so of course, we walked, and walked, and then walked some more. A 40-minute walk is nothing. It’s also a great way to see the city and the people. The women in St. Petersburg are very stylish, and often very beautiful (including Gus’ girlfriend, Katya). The men have a strange obsession with track suits. One man was wearing a red track suit that said “Russian Olympic Team” in English. Clothes with English words are in vogue, even when they don’t make a lot of sense. Recently Russia banned smoking in bars and restaurants, so everyone smokes on the street instead. Alec and I decided that the next time we’re in Rus- sia, we ought to take up smoking just so we can blend in. And speaking of blending in, we didn’t. Gus says we just don’t look Russian. We don’t have that air of weary resignation that is so typical of the ordinary Russian, but rather an air of happy expectation that is uniquely American.
Russians are a contradictory lot, though. In public they wear a mask of indifference, but once you’re in their home, they are the most welcoming, gracious, generous people you’ll ever meet. They care first and foremost about their family and friends, and from what we saw and heard, politics is a distant second.
Looking at the country of Russia from 5,500 miles away, it’s easy to focus on Vladi- mir Putin’s adventures in Ukraine, Russian oligarchs, restrictions on foreign-owned media, etc. But when you’re there, life goes on the same as it always has. While we were in St. Petersburg, people were celebrating high school graduations, taking wedding pictures in front of famous sites, and picnick- ing in parks. The markets were full of meats and produce, as well as shoppers. There was even a Starbucks every block or so, it seemed. They just need to learn how to make a decent martini.
It makes you wonder if Russian citizens are resigned to the status quo or if deep down they yearn for our messy and complicated 239-year-old experiment in Democracy. All I know is that as we get ready to celebrate Independence Day, I’d rather be here than there, especially this week.