Posts Tagged 'vodka'

Existential Panic World Tour Part 12: New Russians not Nude Russians

Howdy all, I’ve safety navigated myself out of Russia and now aside from some minor liver damage, I’m relaxing comfortably in Prague.

Current Russian joke: A guy walks into a bank and says to the teller, “Hello, I have $10,000 and I’m interested in opening an account. Who should I talk to about this?” The teller responds, “a psychiatrist.”

Anyhow, last week in our waning few days in Yoshkar-Ola, my mom threw a party for her friend and my banya-buddy Andrey. He invited many of Mari-El republic’s high-rollers and held the fest at Onar, the hoidiest toidiest joint in the region. The interior of Onar looked like a bottom rung casino from Ratpack-era Vegas. The walls were painted a ridiculous color of purple with frescos of obese cherubs painted in pastels on the ceiling. Elsewhere were bushels of fake ivy, stone wall covering and lots and lots of mirrors. Robert Ventura would have had a field day here. The place was clearly designed to impress, and hence has become a place known throughout the town as being a meeting place for a ecently emerging tribe of post-communists called “New Russians.”

Back in the Halcyon days of the early 90s, a New Russian was synonymous with ‘yuppie’–a newly affluent individual who wore Reeboks and Swatchs, drove foreign cars and enjoyed pizza. Now as Ruble drops like a stone, and as the prospect of simply getting a paycheck on time is becoming an increasingly rare occurrence here, the New Russians have been coded as if not out and out ‘mafia’ then the ugly rich. While several of the people my mother interviewed have not been paid in four or five months, apartment buildings are being thrown up along the river with enough garish opulence to embarrass a Romanov. One New Russian that we rented our apartment from (a really big apartment by Russian standards though without the Romanesque arches and onion domes of those newer models), was a short balding guy named Victor who bore a passing resemblance to Lenin. Though he’s a ‘sexologist’ (shudder) by trade, he seems to have number of side ventures which neither of us really wanted to know about. Last year when my mother was researching in Yoshkar-Ola, Victor offered her a plastic handgun. “For your protection’ he said. Another New Russian is a good friend of Andrey’s and one of my banya-comrades–a squat guy with a flat top and a Stalinesque mustache named Volodya, or as everyone calls him, Volodya the Sausage King, because, as his name would suggest, he made his fortune by stuffing ground pig parts into intestines.

At this fest, Comrade Sausage Czar was there along with his bitter, stricken-looking wife who spent the night drinking heavily and rebuffing her husband’s clumsy attempts at cuddling. Also there were a couple of other guys I had previously seen nekkid at the banya, and a number of teachers at the local university. The vodka flowed, the champaign was guzzled and the food just kept coming and coming and coming. Around 8 o’clock two guys and a synthesizer came out and struck up a tune. I was about to comment on how bad the music (it sounded like bad karaoke) when Andrey leaned over to me and said, “These musicians are good friends of mine. You like?” I nodded and held my tongue. At the end of the first set, the lead singer said (translated through Andrey) “And now a song dedicated to our new American friends.” He gesticulated vaguely at us and then began a really tinny version of Lionel Richie’s early 80s mega-hit “Hello.” Several older men with their suspiciously young spandex clad dates began slow dancing at the center of the hall. Later, after much more vodka and champaignski, the dancing girls came out clad in ostrich feathers, thongs and little else and gyrated.

Sadly, I had to miss much of this cultural performance, I had an appointment to go out dancing at another New Russian haunt called “Holiday.” My comrades-in-boogie were three of the five ex-pat Americans living in Mari-El: Donna, a very tall very blond English teacher; David, a garrulous lawyer also teaching there; and Jennifer, his astonishingly young blushing bride. David, in particular, has a murky mysterious past. Judging from what he told me in his long yarns about himself, he was at various points in his life–a film student, a bouncer, an army cadet, a tai-chi master, a CIA agent and worst of all, a lawyer. His Russian was, apparently, perfect. Upon arriving at the club, David directed my attention to the pair of armed guards standing at the door and noted that the nightsticks they were carrying had a hard plastic casing with a core of cork and a steel spring. “They’re leg-breakers, man,” he said with a certain lusty enthusiasm. He also reminded me that the club’s entry fee was equivalent to one fifth of the average workers monthly salary. (That is when and if they get paid.)

The club was relatively crowded, very smokey and decorated with a lot of chain-link fencing. The music was largely cheesy but cloyingly catchy Euro techno with the occasional Elton John song thrown in. Once they played the “Laura Palmer Theme” from Twin Peaks. Leather definitely seems to be the material of choice for women’s fashion–leather minis, tight leather pants, high leather boots. Most of the guys wore either leather jackets or ill-fitting suits. I danced some and drank a lot more. Again, Russia is a macho culture. If someone places a glass of vodka in your hands and says “Drink up friend,” you drink or suffer a reputation of being a wimp.

As the night wore on, some of the people from the Onar party drifted into the night club including Andrey, who looked completely out of his element. Though the man can drink Yeltsin under the table, he dances like the Twin Peaks’ dream dwarf. Volodya the Sausage King also showed up, but instead of his embittered wife, he was there with a blond balloon-breasted, er, companion who spent the evening sitting on his lap, giggling and playing with his mustache.

I staggered home around four thirty in the morning, with a group of Russians and Donna and I promptly crashed.

The next day, I managed to crawl out of bed and go to the market with my mom in spite of a killer headache. There I saw, in sharp contrast to decadence of the night before, an old woman with gnarled hands selling a half dozen beets spread out on a blanket on the sidewalk for the equivalent of a nickel. Further on I saw a guy in his 30s selling plastic sheeting. I was told that many factories are so far behind in their paychecks that they have started paying workers in the wares the factories produce. I was also told that the major bank in Yoshkar-Ola has frozen all accounts due to the instability of the Ruble. I really have no idea how the average Russian makes ends meet. I also wonder why there hasn’t yet been blood in the streets or what might happen in Russia’s increasingly murky future. When my mom asked one of the people she’s interviewing, someone who hasn’t been paid for six months, he shrugged said, “I am optimistic for the future, I have to be.” Meanwhile Victor, the plastic pistol packing sexologist is thinking about buying a flat at one of the new New Russian complexes for $200,000.

PS LATE BREAKING NEWS: It’s official. My global romp will be ending on Nov. 6. The tickets have been bought, and limo and dancing girls hired.

Existential Panic World Tour Part 11: Sweaty Naked Men

I’m realizing that this trip to Russia not really much of a tourist excursion. For one thing, there ain’t a whole lot to see here in the hinterland. Instead, this is an exercise in Russian cultural immersion. This became particularly evident on the car ride from Kazan to Yoshkar-Ola, when our burly contact here, Andrey, turned to me and asked in his thickly accented English if I’d ever been to a Russian Banya. “A Russian Barnyard?” I asked. A Banya is basically a sauna but its social significance is much more. The Banya is apparently one of the social lubricants that makes society flow. Like Japanese after-work drinking secession or the American tailgate party, it is a time when men are allowed to cast aside their societal roles and carouse like equals with their brethren.

When I mentioned to other Russians and the handful of American ex-pats living here that I was scheduled for such a banya, inevitability their reaction insinuated that I was really going to be in for something. On Monday, Andrey and a driver (Andrey refuses to learn to drive for some reason) picked me up, picked up an armful of alcohol, and then drove to a soccer field. The banya was a small wooden shack built on the edge of the grounds. Apparently, Andrey and a bunch of his buddies from Mari State University gather at this unremarkable hut and “relax.” Andrey pounded on the metal door for sometime before a squat naked man with a remarkably hairy back answered the door. Inside about a dozen middle-aged men were stripping naked, all of them looked like David Crosby or Wilfred Brimley. It was not a pretty sight. Andrey asked me if I wanted a beer before the sauna. I promptly said yes. After the beer and after I stripped, Andrey lead me to the sauna. Upon opening the door I was confronted with the sight of two naked very sweaty men flogging themselves with birch-branches. “It is kind of Russian massage” Andrey said to me. Ok, I thought. I sat in the sauna, allowed myself to slow cook in the intense heat of the room and followed suit with everyone else and began flogging myself with said foliage. (It feels like getting molested by a shrub.) The manly thing to do is to sit there swatting yourself until you have been so cooked your ears begin to curl. I was never quite that gung-ho. Then, with ears curled, the next thing you do to test your macho metal is to plunge into an icy cold pool of water in the next room. It’s kind of like daring your cardiovascular system to have a heart attack. Another variation is to leap, buck naked, into a snow drift and roll around while. Though it’s blasted cold out, there is, as of yet, nary a snow drift. So my banya-comrades made do with standing outside, naked, smoking cigarettes. We would sit around, make crude jokes, slap backs and make statements like “In Russia, men are men and women are women.” Yes, this was male bonding at its most raw and naked (literally). All that was absent was the drums and the Robert Bly books.

After continuing with the grueling sauna, ice water, exposure rotation, I was already feeling a bit buzzed. But no Russian adventure would be complete without the vodka. We all gathered around a buffet of sorts that a couple of the boys had set up. Handing me a glass of vodka (shots are for wimps) Andrey leaned over to me and said, “Russian proverb…After banya you can sell your pants but you must drink.” I asked him to repeat it, just to make sure I heard that right. I have no idea what this pearl of folk widsom actually means (especially considering no one in the room was wearing pants) but I took it as a subtle hint that I should be prepared for some serious drinking. After a toast, they knocked the entire contents of the glass back, as did I. Then another toast and another half glass. There was an impress array of food on the table before me, sauerkraut, bread, honey, olives and of course a big plate of lard. My banya-mates were somewhat perplexed why I wasn’t partaking in what they considered a staple food, but in my mind a line needed to be drawn. I would get naked, I would be happy to parboil and then freeze myself, and I’d be happy to suck down as excessive about of alcohol, but dammit I was not going to eat a chunk of lard. Moreover, seeing Andrey naked and hairy gnawing on a huge chunk of fat will be one of those traumatic images (if only on an aesethetic level) that will stay with me for a long, long time.

As weird as the experience was, though, I found myself actually having fun. And after two more half-glasses of vodka, I found that I was having a whiz-bang of a time. The final toast was to me, for being the sole intrepid American in this uniquely Russian experience. I counter-toasted them for making my banya-going something I won’t soon forget. And then I knocked back all the vodka in one gulp. Andrey said to me in a grave earnest tone, “you drink like a Russian.” I took that as a compliment.

Of course, after four glasses of vodka and three beers I wasn’t merely drunk, sloshed or plastered. I was out of my tiny head. When I arrived home, mom in true Russian tradition was making Borsch. She was also entertaining Donna, a very tall very blonde college student teaching English here and Shirley, the peevish wife of a missionary computer-programmer. (His life project is to make an electronic Bible in Russian with annotations. Yes, clearly what Russia need more than a viable political system, improved health care and a functional infrastructure is an electronic Bible in Russian with annotations.) I staggered into the kitchen, said something unintelligible I’m sure, and then promptly passed out in my bedroom. It wasn’t yet 6 O’clock at night. Later that night, Andrey called. When mom informed him that I was in a vodka coma, we replied with surprise saying, “But we didn’t drink that much.”

That night I felt like I had seen though the stereotypes to glimpse at the real Russia. And perhaps I saw more than I wanted to.


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