Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Russian hospitality - ritual,vodka,dinner and shoe manners

The great Billie Holiday once said, ‘ I don’t like going round to other folks’ houses - the drinks don’t come up fast enough and you can’t leave when you want to.’

She would have been fine about accepting hospitality in Russia because the drinks come up very fast indeed - in fact, it is a social offence for the vodka glass of one’s guest to be empty.

Let me set the scene : we were met at the Metro station Rimskaya, which is typically individualistic and spectacular but also atypically whimsical in design: at the end of one platform  are a pair of Roman columns and clambering across one of these which lies prone are Romulus and Remus. I can be seen here in a kind of Jimmy Saville moment,patting one of the founding babies of Rome’s bottoms- what was I thinking of?

As we emerged from the subterranean depths, propelled by an escalator half a mile long, we were astonished by the sight of an enormous giant crane of an office block - like an inverted L-  which rose up incongruously from the centre of the large pedestrian square we found ourselves lost on - it stood at a thirty degee angle to an adjacent tower over which the the horizontal section at the top, the section like a crane - reached out over its neighbour. But it wasn’t a crane, this gantry section was offices, and how the mechanics of the design prevented its collapse I cannot imagine. Elena trained as a civil engineer and she could not either. 

But boy was it ugly, as ugly as Socrates in that there must have been much intelligence buried away in its design.

There was no Soviet era excuse either - this is a post-modern monstrosity, brand new and still under construction. The architect must be angry inside,still seeking revenge against an uncaring world, the firm that commissioned the architect must be over indulgent or deranged, the citizens of the area must be appalled. If architecture is frozen music, this is Harrison Birtwhistle - he of the crash bang wallop, silence then a long farting sound school of contemporary music - with added flatulence and dyspepsia.

Have a look for yourselves here.
This bleak house is on a thoroughfare close to central Moscow!

Russians do seem to be capable of creating large tracts of bleak and intimidating space in Moscow. Buildings bigger than small countries run for miles along twelve lanes of motorways that gouge out the heart of the city. These edifi give the impression that Stalin personally oversaw each design and then had the architect shot for not understanding what was needed, which was to make the people feel his power as they passed the building.

Our host arrived to rescue us. He led us through the usual urban dystopia of vast blocks of flats, each as big as Bedford. From the air, or on google maps, Moscow looks like a miscellany of hoops, loops, rectangles and squares which are delineated by the six lane wide main thoroughfares and within each of these are randomly arrayed dominoes which are the tower blocks of flats as big as towns. Everywhere is miles away from everywhere. As America makes England look like Toytown, Moscow dwarfs anywhere I have seen in the USA and it makes London look like the land of Tom Thumb.

Up on the 11th floor of our host’s city in the sky block, I was courteously invited in and introduced to Victor’s wife, Luba.

Shoes are always removed immediately and slippers are offered to guests.

The view from each window is one of millions of other skydwellers staring back at one. Their skydwellings stride out like Potsdam Giants, out into the night and across the endless steppes of Russia.

On the table was spread a kind of substantial tapas of at least twenty different dishes - salted cabbage, gherkins, salted tomatoes, olives, potatoes, salads, chicken, pickled mushrooms, pasta packets of mince....and beside me, and each of us, a vodka glass.

It is important to drink vodka down in one. And eat.

The host is obliged to refill your glass immediately.

And I am obliged to eat.

And drink my vodka down in one.

And eat.

Our host was not insensitive, but a feast had been laid out, a fatted calf had been killed.

We must eat, and the salt made me thirsty, so although it is not compulsory to drink the compulsorily filled vodka glass, I did, and it was filled again, and I ate, and was thirsty again.....

The feast of Balshazzar appeared as a blurred memory trace in what was left of my operating mind.

I saw the prophetic words write themselves upon the wall opposite ; ‘ Thou hast been weighed in the balance, and found wanting!

If I had been weighed the scale would have shown me to have put on a few kilos.

But I interpreted these immortal words as a challenge, and did not decline as more food was offered.

The vodka was soaked up by the food, which was delicious, so despite the fact that we had emptied a large bottle between four of us, we were mellow rather than drunk.

It is bad form in Russia to drink on an empty stomach and to lose control of one’s tongue.

The Russians like conversation as well as chatter and gossip, and drunken blathering is an affront to one’s host.

I realise that it probably is bad form everywhere, but somehow drunkenness has become more acceptable in London in polite circles, and somehow, although there is no shortage of drunkenness in Russia or anywhere, it just isn’t here.

Our hosts had loved their time in London.

A bottle of Bushmills Irish whiskey was produced, but we were all so replete that it couldn’t penetrate the dense lining that our stomache’s enjoyed and we remained happily mellow.

It was time, after a few spoonfuls of jam, made, like all the rest of the food, from produce grown in the garden of their dacha, to leave.

After much warm shaking of hands and uninhibited hugging, we were out into the vast forest of skytowns and down into the roaring rushing metro and home.

A wonderful evening.

 Unless otherwise stated all photographs by Elena Bruce

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