Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Chalet Shenanigans - Chapter 20

 Where We Chill Out with Some New Russian Mobster Friends

My first recollection of anything Russian was in primary school in the 1960’s in California.  We had three kinds of “drills” at school:  fire drills, earthquake drills and Russian bomb drills.  Fire drills were not so bad because we got to go outside on the playground and leave the books and pencils behind.  Earthquake drills and Russian drills were miserable, however, because we all had to crouch down underneath our desks for what seemed like an eternity and when they finally let us crawl out, my outfit was always dusty and dirty, which made me mad.

So, for many years, I pictured Russians as these big, nasty guys who were going to come to my school, shake it like an earthquake and ruin my nice little sundress.  The bastards.  Then, when I was in my twenties, I read a Danielle Steele book called “Zoya” and I became extremely fascinated with the story of poor Princess Anastasia and how more of these nasty, Russian guys executed her entire family INCLUDING HER SICK LITTLE BROTHER.  Her body wasn’t found for decades and it was all a delicious and decadent mystery which my 26-year-old drama queen self just gobbled up.

I remember trying to picture myself with multiple palaces at my disposal like Anastasia.  She had a palace for every season but (according to Danielle Steel, that renowned historian) her favorite was the family’s Summer Palace, Tsarkoe Selo.  Now, I didn’t have a clue how to even say that but I just knew that I wanted to go there one day.  One day when I was no longer petrified of Russians.

Fast forward 24 years to a time when Americans trip in and out of Moscow like it was in Canada and Russians nosh on McDonald’s burgers and shop at the Levi’s store in the mall at the Kremlin. 

There’s even a Mexican restaurant on the street leading to Red Square called Borscht & Burritos.  (Kidding, I think it’s called Tequila something or other.  If it was MY restaurant it would definitely be called Borscht & Burritos.)

So, obviously, it’s time to go see my Summer Palace, right?  Before Russia starts getting too westernized and loses all its’ “russian-ness”.  Oh, ho, ho, there’s no chance of that happening any time soon!  First of all, Americans still have to get a visa to travel to Russia which is giant pain in the buttocks.  After you’ve taken care of that issue you are given another slip of paper on the airplane.  You have to write down exactly where you will be every day that you are in Mother Russia.  You will be expected to keep this with you on your person at all times and hand it over to anybody who asks.  (We were asked twice.  Once, I couldn’t find mine which caused quite a stir and pictures of gulags in Siberia began running through my head.)

Speaking of the plane, here is a rule of thumb:  if the passengers all clap when the plane lands, that is the signal that you are arriving in a not-quite-fully-developed nation.  They are clapping because they have arrived ALIVE and that can never be good.   If you go, don’t be discouraged by the drive from the St. Petersburg airport into the city center.  It’s kind of. . .grim.  It didn’t help that, in spite of the fact that it was the middle of summer, the people were wearing coats and boots because it was only 50 degrees F outside.

Once you get in the city center and start seeing all of the monuments and old buildings and the main shopping street, Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg scenery gets much better.  As a matter of fact, if one were going to try and characterize Russian “style”, one might call it “over the top”.  If one were being nice.  If one were being truthful, one might call it “Bordello Chic”.  The architecture, the décor and furniture in the hotels and shops, the palaces, in short, everything, is overdone, overdecorated, overgilded, oversized,etc.  I was just too, too much.

As you will see from the pictures, the Russians think there’s nothing that can’t be improved with a little gold leaf.  They also love marble, crystal and this funky shade of blue that was apparently Catherine the Great’s fave.  If a Russian can somehow combine all four of these elements AT ONE TIME, well, they are just over the moon in Decoration Nirvana.  More is more in Russia.

For example, the bar in our hotel was so scary and intimidating, we couldn’t even drink there.  There were six, SIX!, 12-foot tall statues of Zeus or somebody holding up the ceiling in a room about the size of a single-wide.  There was another little bar/restaurant about a half a block away that looked much cozier and laid back.  So, we went there twice.  Natch.

The first night we went, we noticed nothing amiss.  There were two tables of some really big, burly guys but we thought they were just there to drink massive amounts of vodka and watch the Olympics.  BTW, the Russian programming of the Olympics is A HOOT!  It is all weight-lifting, wrestling and gymnastics.  All the time.  Period.  Our dinner was delicious—borscht and pierogies.  Very traditional.

Late the next afternoon, we stopped back in for apertifs and that was when we noticed something very strange.  One of the big guys from the night before was back.  I just thought, OK, he’s a regular.  But this afternoon, he was with, well, there is no nice way to put it really, he was being entertained by two ladies of the evening.  (Technically, in this case, I guess I would have to call them ladies of the afternoon.)   And his bodyguard.  Oh, excuse me.  ONE of his bodyguards.  His OTHER bodyguard was still standing inside the front door of the restaurant where I had mistaken him for the maître d’hotel.  But that couldn’t be right, could it, since the REAL maître d’hotel was actually standing right there next to me showing me to my seat?

Slowly, it dawned on me that this “regular” might be a Mafia guy.  There was another customer to my right, all by himself, talking on his phone, but making eye contact with HIS bodyguard out in the vestibule.  Now, I am not the brightest bulb in the box, but I did own a little restaurant for 15 years and even I know that a little, neighborhood bar THAT ONLY HAS 6 PEOPLE in it, (two of whom were Mr. Big and I), did not need 3 bodyguards to maintain order.  Mercy.  That’s a 2:1 ratio.  That’s a recipe for gunplay, in my book.

As one of only two people in the restaurant who was not packing heat, I decided to put my theory to the test.  I wanted to see if those two dudes out in the foyer worked for the restaurant or if they worked for the clientele.  Putting on my snootiest Swiss expression and strut and my ultra-high Parisienne French accent, I sauntered out to ask them the location of the toilettes.  I got two blank stares.  I asked again in English.  More blank stares.  Since I had run through my entire repertoire of languages with no response, I turned and made my own way to the bathroom, of which I already knew the location since I had just been there the night before.

Upon returning to the table and summoning the waiter to bring me another glass of wine because there was no way in hell I was leaving this excitement, I whispered to Mr. Big without moving my lips, “Dude, we are in a Russian mob bar.”

Mr. Big:  No shit, Sherlock.  Did you think those two chicks were that guy’s daughters?

Me:  Well, actually, yes, initially.  But the two guys with guns in the vestibule who won’t stop staring at us are what really tipped me off.

Mr. Big:  This guy sitting next to me with the phone is quite scary.

Me:  I know.  Isn’t this fabulous?  Quick, order another drink.  And man up and order vodka this time, would you?  You can’t sit in a mob bar and drink pink wine.  Puh-leeze.

About this time, Mob Guy With Hookers lights up a cigarette INSIDE THE RESTAURANT like it was his living room.  After putting my eyes back in my skull, I summoned the real maître d’hotel  and asked for an ashtray because I have two smoking friends back in the US who will absolutely die of jealousy that I was smoking inside a restaurant.  (Hi, Chris!  Hi, Doug!)  Anyway, the waiter LOOKS OVER AT SMOKING MOB GUY with his eyebrows raised and he receives the go-ahead to go get me an ashtray.  This was when I realized that one is probably not allowed in regular, i.e. non-mob-affiliated, bars to smoke, but since I was now one of the gang, well. . .g’head, girl.  Rock on with your smoking self.

OK, nothing else happened.  No one died or was gunned down or anything.  I did wave good-bye and say au revoir to all my new friends.  None of them paid any attention to me, however.  In spite of the fact that we did not become Facebook friends, I am pretty sure that, should I ever need to have Mr. Big “taken care of” I know just where to turn.

Here is the link to the hotel where we stayed:  Taleon Imperial Hotel  The Mob bar is, of course, nowhere to be found on the internet.  Just go out of the hotel, turn right and go about three doors down.  If you have to go through two sets of bullet-proof glass doors, you are in the right place.  Tell them Trailing Spouse said “hey”.

No comments:

Post a Comment