"Feel yourself like at home."
Spanish cheers went up in celebration as our plane touched down in Moscow. “Arriba! Vamanos!” Partly we celebrated a safe landing in Russia. Partly we celebrated the distance we’d come. I’d crossed an ocean and a continent. The Mexicans one continent more than that. The Peruvians another still. But most of all we celebrated the World Cup and the events that would transpire over the coming weeks. Then our delegations separated, and I went off to meet up with my girlfriend, Haily, at our hostel.
It was past midnight when we got off the plane, and I needed to catch a cab to my hostel. I also hoped to procure a SIM card for my phone, allowing me to telecommunicate in country, but this was less of a priority. The airport didn't have Wifi (at least, you needed a Russian phone number to access it). But it’s not like anyone had any important information to tell me at this point.
I had a few different options of what to do next and spent maybe twenty minutes equivocating among all of them. There was a taxi kiosk inside the terminal with a long queue, and a taxi booth with no queue at all (perhaps for a reason?). Then there was a SIM card kiosk with a long queue, and a SIM card booth with no queue at all (again, suspicious). I started with the SIM card booth, no queue. The young man at the booth was on the telephone. I tried to assert myself and he moved the phone about three microns away from his ear to tell me that they were currently out of SIM cards. His friend would be back in twenty minutes with more. I went to the other SIM card kiosk but soon grew impatient after standing motionless in line for five minutes. I tried my luck with a taxi. I went outside to see if it was possible to hail a cab directly. Three paces outside of the airport terminal, I realized that this was not how it worked. My only option for a taxi was to join the line inside. Turning to reenter the terminal I was stopped by a Russian guard, who spun me around and ushered me in a different direction. I was trying to enter through an exit, and this was strictly forbidden.
After reentering the airport through the appropriate screening checkpoint, I decided to try my luck again with the SIM card kid. Maybe his friend had been able to deliver some merchandise. When I got back to the booth, I had heard him explain to another would-be customer that they were currently out of cards, but that his friend would bring a new supply in twenty minutes. Then he went back to his phone call. Not going to happen.
So I went to the taxi booth. I told the gentleman where I was going. He gave me a ticket with a fixed price for my ride from the airport to my destination. I asked if I was supposed to take the ticket outside or remain at the booth for further instructions. “Yes,” he said. I clarified, “So I should go outside?” He gave me a look that said, “Do you really think I give two tiny moose shits about what you do?” I decided, a touch optimistically, to stay where I was. He seemed to agree this was the best option as well. I waited for a few minutes without receiving any further attention, beginning to grow uncertain that I wasn't just standing with a ticket in my hand, waiting for a cab to pull up inside the terminal, like an American dumbass. Eventually, an attendant came and escorted me to a cab. I was off.
The streets on the way into Moscow were liberally decorated with World Cup advertisements. The primary one being the official statement from the Russians, “Welcome the game” and its variants: Welcome the Serbians. Welcome the Belgians. Welcome the Egyptians. I thought this an odd sentiment. It seemed more like a directive to the native Russians (read: Don't fuck with the tourists), rather than a warm greeting of the foreigners. "Welcome to the game" would seem more appropriate, no?
My cab driver dropped me off at my hostel. I had no internet, no knowledge of Moscow, no way to contact anyone. He could’ve dropped me off anywhere within 30 miles of the airport and I wouldn’t have figured out that something was amiss until he’d speeded off to pick up the next sucker. He dropped me off on a side street and indicated this was, to the best of his knowledge, the location specified by the address. It was just a residential street of multi-story apartments. There was no sign or anything. I got out and fetched my bags, because I didn’t have any alternative hypotheses.
By now it was 1:30 in the morning. Well passed check in time. Thankfully, Haily had already checked in, since her plane had arrived earlier that day. I found the building number of the hostel and pressed the doorbell. Nothing happened. It didn’t seem promising. I couldn't contact Haily to come get me, as I had opted not to get the SIM card. No internet either. Happily, just as I was about to take up residence in the doorway like a vagrant, another guest hopped out of a cab and helped me into the building. The hostel was on the third floor and appeared to be just a converted floor of separate rooms. I presented myself at the front desk and handed the old Russian lady my passport. I’d come a long way to be here, and I was excited to arrive at my destination. She looked at my passport for a moment, then made a phone call. This, I was beginning to understand, was the customary manner in which Russians conduct a transaction. While she was on the phone, I got on the Wifi in the hostel. A flurry of messages came in. From Haily: "There's been a housing snafu."
Oh, that was the important information.
I had no way of knowing whether the phone call the Russian lady was presently engaged with had any relevance for my situation. She could have been talking to her grandson for all I knew. She hadn’t said a word to me since I came in. But whatever was going on was clearly not in my favor. Apparently, as Haily explained to me, they had our reservation on their books but had given away our room nonetheless. We hadn't paid in full ahead of time. “But I have an email right here from a week ago saying you confirmed our reservation and that we could pay upon arrival," I protested. I rifled through my bag and waved a printed out email in front of her face. This intelligence failed the move the Russian lady, as she spoke not a word of English. She presented me with the phone, and I spoke with another Russian lady, one who spoke English—fluently enough though not very nicely. She told me that we had been given a room at a different hostel. "Why did you not come to the new address? Did you not get the SMS message? Your friend said you would get the SMS message. You should have come to the—“ I cut her off. "No," I snapped. "You should have had a room for us here. The only question you should be asking is why I have an email confirmation for a room but no room." But I wasn't in a position of power, and it sounded like we had a room, just located somewhere else. I got the new address from Haily, the only trustworthy person involved in the transaction, and set off.
Only slightly daunted, I arrived at our accommodations. I was immensely happy to be reunited with Haily. I was even somewhat happy to have suffered through my ordeal in getting situated, since it seemed to have worked out alright. Disorder and chaos in the face of resolute commitment to arbitrary rules—where else on earth could I be but Moscow?
Moscow is organized in a schematic of concentric circles, with Red Square and the Kremlin at the center. We made our way from our hostel just inside the second ring toward Moscow’s heart. We passed five or six cafes on the first street alone. Not quite hungry yet, we pressed on. The buildings in Moscow don’t feel generically European. Vaguely, you get the sense that you’re in Europe—as opposed to, say, North America or the Middle East—but I couldn’t place my surroundings in the context of another European city, like I could for Warsaw.
But that is, I suppose, the point of Moscow. It’s a city in Europe the same way Cairo is a city in Africa. Technically that’s where it is in a geographical sense, but not necessarily in a cultural one. Moscow lies at the junction between east and west, to be sure, yet is subtle in how it combines them. It’s neither a mix of things eastern and western, nor an amalgam of the two. You get the sense that you’re somewhere singular. But the again you are. Russia.
The façade that impressed me most as we walked through the city did not belong to a building but a construction site. The Russians had made a temporary facsimile of the building’s face and strung it up in front while they did construction behind it. From a distance, it just looks like a building. Only up close do you realize something looks a little off. It is immediately obvious that Moscow takes pride in its appearance. No liter on the streets. Nothing out of place. Yet it doesn’t feel sterile, like this cleanliness is an act they’re putting on for the tourists. No, what it feels like is a city that takes pride in itself.
The Kremlin, where we found ourselves now, is a foreboding place. No doubt this is the aesthetic they intended. It features an imposing red castle wall protecting the inner sanctum from intruders. It’s the kind of wall that even a Texan would look upon with admiration as sufficient for keeping out unwanted guests. The only thing that would further its point is a sign that says “beware of dog” or, better yet given the scale, “beware of dragon.” What it is that goes on in the buildings within the inner sanctum I have no idea. But if you were, say, to conduct a back alley transaction with a representative from FIFA, you’d have plenty of furtive places to do it. As we stood before it, there was in fact another fence of a much smaller order—the kind used at music festivals or other large public events—to restrict pedestrians access to no more than a hundred yards from the Kremlin wall. This mode of arbitrary sequestering of the public, we would learn, is something the Russians like to do very much.
Off to the side is the iconic building of Moscow, St Basil's Cathedral, with the distinct Soviet architecture, colorful and columnar, topped with exotic dollops of sour cream. The building feels just a bit out of place. It seems a little overly whimsical to be set next to the we-shoot-to-kill sensibilities of the Kremlin wall. We looked at all of this from a bit of a distance, as the whole of Red Square was fenced off. Wouldn't want to chance it, what with one of those soccer hooligans attempting to penetrate the Kremlin's fortifications.
Having explored Moscow’s epicenter, we followed a different spoke toward the outer ring. It was raining cotton on this day in Moscow, falling daintily from the sky, and so the whole city had a mid-summer-winter-wonderland feel to it, like being in a room-temperature snow globe. We were hungry now. But the street we found ourselves on offered no cafés. The only one we did find was unaccountably humid and smelled of moist cheese. Not of interest to us. We retraced our steps where we remembered seeing a few promising establishments and settled on a restaurant offering Georgian fare (what they eat in the former Soviet satellite, not in the Southern US). This was something I’d never had before. This was something I hadn’t even known existed before this moment. And with this loss of innocence came an even more pronounced loss of faith in my fellow human—as I decided that Georgian food is the most worthwhile, most rewarding, most delicious secret that no one had bothered to tell me about. I couldn’t believe it.
We sat outside. It was late morning. Past breakfast time, but no where near time for lunch. It was possibly for this reason the waitresses eyed us with disdain. Or, equally likely, it was just because they were Russian. We started with Kharcho, a sort of Georgian minestrone—spicy, with beef. Then Khachapuri. They described it as pie, but really it was spinach pizza. Three kinds of dumplings: lamb, cheese, and pork. When served, they reminded me of blanched versions of the ornaments on the building in Red Square, a sack of goodies twisted up and ready for consumption. It was phenomenal.
We continued on our walk around Moscow. We made off in the direction of no where in particular, eventually meandering back toward Red Square. We found ourselves on Nikolskaya, the main shopping thoroughfare of the city, near Red Square. This was clearly the most densely touristed section of Moscow. It was here we first came across the traditional garb of the World Cup attendee. The base is the national jersey (older kits connote longer-standing devotion). On top of that is the scarf, a flag worn as a cape, a flag painted on the cheek (your opponent’s flag on the other, if you’re feeling diplomatic), and a gaudy wig of curly hair painted in the colors of your nation. There were the Argentinians in blue and white (to be distinguished from non-Argentinians who merely wore their Messi jerseys). The Swedes in their blue and yellow. The Mexicans, of course, with their egregious sombreros substituted for the wig. The Peruvians were also out in complete regalia. I already felt a certain fondness for their number because of their show of spirit and enthusiasm on the flight over. A quartet of Peruvians stood outside a KFC drinking beer—most of it successfully making it from can to mouth, too—and carrying on in an even more spirited and enthusiastic manner than I had previously observed. Noting that it was only a few minutes past noon, I added ambition to my list of endearing Peruvian qualities.
As we wandered through town we passed a statue. It was quite large, maybe three times as tall as me, but we couldn’t tell who it was of. We took a moment to study it closely. “It looks like that guy has a scroll with just the alphabet,” I remarked, thinking it a bit of an odd thing for anyone beyond first grade to commemorate on a scroll, let alone a statue. As we wandered off we heard a tour guide say that it was a statue of Saint Cyril. It was an alphabet—ol' Cyril was proud to show it off because he had just invented it. Presumably he thought it worthwhile to tell his friends. It is very important to my Bulgarian acquaintance, Momchil, that you understand that Cyril was a Bulgarian and, accordingly, what is usually thought of as the Russian alphabet is, in fact, the Bulgarian alphabet.
Developed around 800 BCE, Cyrillic really is a delightful script. As a native English speaker, one gets the feeling that one should be able to pronounce it if one just tries hard enough. Cyril developed it, with the help of his colleagues, from a hodgepodge of Greek, Latin, an older script called Glagolitic, and a few inventive markings of his own devising. It looks a bit as if a particularly stubborn English speaker—not one to bow before authority—took our alphabet and made it her own, using more or less all the same letters but assigning to each one the phonetic value which seemed more appropriate to her than the original. Some stay the same. For instance, “трактор” sounds like “tractor.” But others are completely bastardized—"Москва" is pronounced "Moskva" and "ресторан" pronounced "restaurant." They also added in a few a doodads and odd balls of their own invention for good measure, such as the final morpheme in "сад," pronounced sad but meaning garden.
We repaired to a bar for a few midday drinks. We found a spot within supervising range of Cyril, but convivially situated under ground. We sat at a high topped table and ordered a pair of Aperol Spirtzes, apparently the traditional drink of Moscow (they are advertised in front of absolutely every drinking establishment). We consumed several of the delightful, pinkish beverages, each served in an accommodatingly wide wine glasses. Satisfied and slightly tipsy, we walked back to our hostel. We’d gotten a feel for the city and we wanted to rest up. We had a big evening a head of us. One of the events we were most looking forward to in Moscow: dinner at White Rabbit.
Getting a reservation at White Rabbit had been an ordeal of its own. We emailed multiple times. No response. When finally they responded and asked for a prepayment, they failed to include a link. When we requested a link, we never heard back. When at length they did send a link, it was—and what else would you expect here?—to some sketchy payment site, of the kind you wouldn’t be surprised to visit if you needed to purchase weapons-grade plutonium on the black market. I entered my card credit information if not happily then at least dutifully.
We walked through a construction zone to get to the restaurant. In the general vicinity but at a loss for where to proceed, we had to look up specific directions to get in. The entrance was located on an unassuming side street, the building only exceptional if you look up at the top of it. You’re required to take two elevators, neither of them helpfully labeled, to get there. This is, you understand, one of the nicest, most famous, most expensive restaurants in Russia. The door isn’t unlabeled in some ironic hipsterish attempt to insinuate that you need to be “in the know” to find it. It’s just unlabeled because, well, fuck you, this is Russia and that’s just how things are. We found it nonetheless. That’s how in the know we are.
We got there early, at five, because the tasting menu was supposed to take a few hours and we wanted to catch a World Cup match at nine. We were seated in an open air deck area, instead of the main dining room. It seemed agreeable enough, and we probably didn’t have much of a choice. Not wanting to have a request to move denied, we decided that it was better not to make the request in the first place. But we were clearly in the low-rent district of the establishment, where they stick the schlubs. I’ve never been to Dubai, but I imagine this was close to what it would feel like. All of the chairs were plush lounges, with more room devoted to the several luxuriant pillows than to one's ass. We were on a roof top with a definite view of nothing in particular. There were inane tropical bird noises playing over the loudspeaker. And, speaking factually, the only demographics who could afford to enjoy this restaurant as a casual 5pm meal on the lounging deck were Arabs, Asians, and Russian aristocracy. Tell me that those aren’t the same three demographics going out to eat in Dubai. The three young Arab gentleman at the table next to us were clearly consuming their meal out of a sense of obligation to eat some place conspicuous, rather than from any apparent genuine pleasure.
Our waiter was a young Russian man, Aleksandar. We told him we’d like the tasting menu. He informed us that this was the right choice and dutifully shuffled off to enter our order into the system. We started off with polguar, a traditional Russian spirit. “Just try it,” was Aleksandar’s advice… Sea urchin sorbet, which was probably the highlight… Honey wine: they bury it when a child is born, then dig it up when the child starts their own family, traditionally around 15-17 years old apparently.
When the check came, they charged us for the full thing plus the drinks we had. It was only several moments after the transaction had been finalized that I realized I had prepaid for the meal. I informed Aleksandar of this. The color drained from his face. “Oh no,” he murmured stoically. “This is my mistake.” We had to transact with manager to settle the issue. He told us that he would issue a refund to the card. It would go through in a couple of days. This was, mind you, the same establishment that had requested we prepay for the meal without being thoughtful enough to include a method for doing so. The bill was not an insignificant amount of money. I was supposed to trust that they were going to summon up enough dependability to reimburse me several days hence forth. And I did, if not happily then at least dutifully.
After dinner we snuck up to see the main dining atrium. This was a mistake. It was inordinately superior to the deck. This was what had been featured in the documentary we'd seen about the restaurant. This was the real Russian treatment. The decor was intense and ornate. It featured a beautiful view of Moscow. We felt cheated for not having been sat there—for we had missed out on a crucial element of the White Rabbit experience. Alas.
There’s a lot to be said for White Rabbit. The food was very good. It was inventive and delicious, no doubt. But no matter how high quality it may have been, the restaurant is—like everything else in Russia—not necessarily designed with the distinct ambition for you to enjoy your experience.
Haily wasn’t feeling well after dinner. I accompanied her back to the hostel, made sure she was settled in for the evening, then hit the streets for the Portugal-Spain match. This was one of the marquee games of the group stage. Spain were among the favorites to win it all, and Portugal, highly ranked themselves, boasted among their numbers one of the two best players on the planet, Cristiano Ronaldo. We’d identified a promising spate of bars along one of the avenues by our hostel. Outfitted proudly in my Ronaldo jersey, I set out with this destination in mind.
I called first at an Irish pub, called something so overly generic as to not even be plausibly authentic, like Patty O’Hoolihans or Leprechaun McLuckycharms. The restaurant was large, but stuffed to the ceiling with World Cup fans. The televisions were large and numerous. I snagged a seat next to some Russian girls. I sat for a happy moment and took it all in. I was in a bar in a foreign country—the one where the World Cup was being held—and so were all these other people. These were individuals from all over the world, from Russia and Peru and France and Senegal and Poland and Costa Rica and everywhere else. And they were all here for the same reason I was. I found it all immensely gratifying.
I tried to flag down a waiter. When eventually I experienced some success in this enterprise I asked for a beer. “Not this bar,” the waiter informed me. He pointed to the next room over, “That.” This left me with several queries I would’ve liked to pose. I was actually in comforting proximity to a bar that appeared to be fully operational. I was close enough to slosh a beer with confident accuracy into the face of one of the bartenders—that is, if I was inclined to do so and actually able to procure a drink. I was at least academically curious about why I couldn’t order anything from that bar. But there were many other tables whose requests he needed to deny, and he wandered off before I could ask.
I forfeited my seats next to the Russia girls. I bid them adieu, but they weren’t all that invested in my presence anyway. I poked my head in the room indicated by the waiter, but there were no seats. There wasn’t even standing room. I went to search the upper deck, just in case. Nothing.
It was still early in the game, and I didn’t want to commit to a suboptimal experience. I went next door, to another Irish pub, Guinness McJameson, if I recall. This one looked more promising. The TV screen was more modestly sized, but agreeably visible. Furthermore, I felt optimistic about the possibility of getting a drink here. It proved difficult to solicit the attention of the bartender, as he was occupied with fending off pushy drunk Russians. I waited patiently for my turn and was duly rewarded with a Harp Irish lager and then a lone seat at the bar. It was still the first half of the match, and I had a satisfactory, if not to say lavish home from which to enjoy it.
The table next to me was a group of six. Mostly English speaking, but the ring leader was clearly Russian. An immense block of a man. He was especially excited about one bottle of Scotch in particular behind the bar. It was important to him for his compatriots to appreciate this fine specimen of Highland whisky. He petitioned the bartender to remove it from the shelves so he could present its façade to his colleagues. After looking at it admiringly for several minutes he gave the bottle back to the barkeep and requested a round for his table, six shots. The bartender obliged. But when the shots reached the table, Mr. Blok looked dissatisfied. There was, he complained, a problem with the volume of the drink. It was not enough. “This shot no,” he stated in broken but effective English (presumably the Irish bartender’s Russian was worse). I can personally attest that the bartender measured the shots before he poured them—I’d watched him do it—and he informed Blok of as much. This, to Blok’s mind, was not a valid excuse. The bartender assured him that the volume of Scotch would not be increased under any circumstances.
“Niet,” challenged Blok.
“Da,” affirmed the barkeep.
Defeated in a competition of wit, Blok returned to his friends—though his efforts were not entirely without consequence, because the bartender eventually delivered another glass of Scotch to his table, gratis. Rewarding this kind of behavior, no doubt, serves to make pushy, drunk Russians pushier and drunker.
Though I’d been able to obtain a seat, I decided to leave the bar at half time, as the match was a good one but seemed to be an auxiliary consideration in the establishment. Unsure of where else to turn, I equivocated then returned to the first Irish bar. That one at least had a committed fan base, I thought. I sat in a different place, though in same room as the one I had previously been ushered out of. I was sitting directly at the bar this time, even more convenient sloshing distance. I attempted to persuade the bartender into serving me a beer, but to no avail. He just looked at me for a moment, unmoved, and announced, “Later.” Unsure of how to interpret this intelligence, I reinvested myself in the game. Anticipating such difficulty in procuring further alcohol, I had done my best to drink while I was afforded the opportunity in the previous establishment. I’d done pretty well, actually. I was in a good place to engage with the action around me.
Eventually I felt that perhaps later had rolled around while I’d been attending to the game. I turned again to the barkeep, but the Russian gentleman next to me indicated that this attempt would be futile. Everyone else around me, I noticed, had a glass of one kind or another, but apparently there was some prohibition on my ordering a beer. The game ended in a tie: 3-3, with a Ronaldo hat trick matching the output of the entire Spanish team. All told, I spent over an hour in that bar without being able to get a drink.
It is the Chinese inflection of broken English—affectionately referred to as “Engrish”—that is widely celebrated. But its Russian counterpart far outstrips it in implausible constructions and confounding linguistic inventions. Russians put the “ish” in English.
Above the toilet in our hostel read a sign: “DEAR GUEST!!! TO AVOID NATURAL DISASTER, WE SENTLY ASK YOUR TOILET PAPER AND MEANS OF PERSONAL HYGIENE TO PICK THE BUCKET!” I’m actually at a loss as to suppose which word contracts to form “SENTLY” in that context. But the gist of the message is not to put anything in the toilet that isn’t shit. It seems that their concern is about the offending object’s choice of where to reside—ideally, it'd choose the bucket. Their consternation about a “NATURAL DISASTER” also seems a little dramatic, does it not?
Above the stove there read another message: “Dear guests !!! Convincing request !! DO NOT INCLINE THE BOTTLES OF THE COMFORT FOR THE MAXIMUM MODE “9” !!!! USE THE MODES NOT ABOVE “6” COOKING OF EASY DISHES (EARTH, OMELET, CASH, PEMENI ) The power of the plate is not calculated for the greater !!” Your guess is as good as mine here, but I think it means that if you’re gonna cook up some eggs then keep the burner turned to about five or so. Maybe best to try Google fucking Translate next time rather than going it alone.
Then there was the additional hostel rule, helpfully posted in several locations around the lobby: “Feel yourself like at home, but do not forget that you are guest!”
Hostels really are curious places. This is especially true in Russia. Many hostels have themes, but here they’re taken on with a certain imperative gravity. The theme for the hostel in which we stayed the first couple nights in Moscow (same as the one we were supposed to stay in) was the television series Game of Thrones. The hostel’s name was Winterfell. There were toy dragons hanging from the ceiling and outcroppings of fake stone nestled into available counter space. The sense of whimsy elicited by having medieval-looking crap everywhere was decidedly at odds with the manner of the frosty tempered bitch—she really was, even by Russian standards—who attended the front desk about twenty-two hours per day (the same one who had reprimanded me not for receiving the SMS indicating the change of arrangements). There were unattributed quotes from the show, many of them rather peculiar out of context. One quote, prominently displayed, read: “I will not bear children.”
Probably just as well, honestly.
But, alas, just as we had begun to feel ourselves like at home, we had to leave. We were on our way to St. Petersburg.