Four Meals and a Teabreak

Part 6 of The Moscow ChroniclesI  Follow the links for Part 1 - Moscow Calling , Part 2 - Taksi! , Part 3 - Night in the City, Part 4 - The Road to Red Square and Part 5 – A Bridge Too Far?

I left the man swimming in the park to it and made my way back to the hotel.  It was galling that I was going to have to walk past it, on the opposite bank, in order to get to the next bridge but, after my travails with the traffic and finding Red Square shut, it was the least of my problems.

I now had a couple of hours in which to do some last minute checking of my lessons for the next two days before heading out again.  It was Friday night and Cliff, our local ‘fixer’ and licence-holder for the course, had arranged for my two male colleagues, whose programme this was, to accompany him to a local Sports Bar to watch an English football match of some import.  They had, quite rightly, formed the opinion that this wouldn’t be quite my thing and, as it might involve the consumption of a number of beverages, might not be appropriate as I was to commence teaching in the morning.  I had, therefore, been consigned to go with my female colleague, who had finished her teaching stint that day, and with Elena (Cliff’s right-hand woman) to a local restaurant.

I met my colleague and Elena in the hotel foyer and we set off into the deep chill and darkness.  I had half-expected that Elena would have a car or, at least, the use of the driver who had brought me from the airport, but this didn’t appear to be the case.  We set off over some wasteland and were presently climbing a grassy bank.  Elena, being younger and fitter than either of us, made it to the top of the bank first.  When we joined her, gasping and panting and somewhat nonplussed, we were amazed to find that we were now on the side of one of Moscow’s six-lane highways, teeming with rush-hour traffic.  Elena was standing by the side of the highway with her thumb out and my spirits plummeted.  I didn’t think she stood much chance but, within a matter of minutes, there was a queue of about 12 or 15 cars parked on the side, some private cars and some taxis.  Elena worked her way along the queue, conversing with each driver in turn.  Eventually she made her choice and beckoned us across.  We climbed into a small, red Lada driven by a cheerful chap who was clearly on his way home from work.  Elena and my colleague were in the back, I was sitting next to the driver.  I immediately learned, from his disapproving looks, that wearing a seat belt was not considered the done thing.  Elena later told me that it was seen as expressing a lack of confidence in the driver.  Elena barked out a destination and we rejoined the traffic.  It was apparent that the driver spoke no English, which was fair enough as I spoke no Russian.  A few minutes later, he dropped us at our destination, Elena gave him a few roubles and he drove off happily.

Not unsurprisingly, we quizzed Elena about this arrangement and it transpired that this was a common way for people on their way home from work to earn a few roubles.  She had worked her way along the cars that had stopped until she had obtained the best deal for the journey.  We followed her to our venue, which was a fast-food restaurant chain called (if memory serves me correctly) ‘Moo-Moo’.  This was a cafeteria-style place serving traditional Russian food.  I can’t remember what we had as I didn’t recognise anything much but we finished up with a plateful of something and then returned to our hotel by the same system that we employed before.  Overall, it was a pretty surreal experience.

The following morning, Cliff picked me up and drove me to the hotel where the classes were taking place.  He introduced me to the students, who were a great bunch, and promised to return at lunch to take me for a bite to eat.  The students were really bright and many occupied quite senior positions in their respective industries.  In many cases they had travelled many hundreds of miles to attend this course and I had the greatest respect for their determination to succeed and for their ability to learn a complex subject in a foreign language.

At lunchtime, Cliff drove me to another hotel where I sampled caviar for the first time at a hotel snack bar.  Afterwards, Cliff gave me a quick tour of some of the sights on our way back to class.  I managed to take a couple of photos through the car window (see below) but the enduring image that made hugely surprised me and made me laugh out loud was the sudden appearance of a giant golden statue of Charles de Gaulle, glimpsed down a side street.  It just seemed so incongruous!

At the end of my first day of teaching, we all gathered together for the last time and Cliff took us to his favourite restaurant for a farewell meal.  This turned out to be, somewhat surprisingly, a genuine American Diner in the city centre.  This was the proper steel trailer type design with appropriately dressed waitresses (although the American customer service values were somewhat missing).  I dithered over the extensive menu until Cliff said would I like to try his recommendation.  Grateful not to have to make a choice, I agreed and, like him, ordered steak, fries and gravy.  I have to say it was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had.

On Sunday, all of my colleagues were heading back to the U.K., I had one more day of teaching and then I, too, would be returning on the Monday.  Cliff again took me to my class and also took me for lunch.  This was another exercise in surreality.  We had to wait for a table to become available in this gigantic hotel he had chosen.  There seemed to be some sort of conference or something going on as there were hordes of people in attendance.  Within a short while, it became obvious that we were in the middle of a body-building competition as hulking blokes, swathed in oil and very little else, made their way between the tables on their way to the arena, accompanied by their entourages.  It was the weirdest lunch hour I think I’ve ever spent.

That afternoon, at tea break, I joined my students in the hotel bar for a cup of tea (with lemon, of course, not milk).  There was an older chap, who was obviously English, sitting in the corner so I struck up a conversation with him.  It tuned out that he was there teaching a different batch of students accountancy.  He didn’t look like he was particularly enjoying the experience.  I asked him if he would be going home soon and he sadly shook his head.  Apparently he had another assignment to teach another class but this time in Sakhalin.  If you don’t know, Sakhalin is an island in the North Pacific and is the furthermost western point of Russia, some 3,948 miles away and a 7 hour flight.  I gave him my condolences and reflected happily on the fact that I would be going home tomorrow.

At the end of the day, Cliff picked me up and apologised that he wouldn’t be able to join me for dinner as he needed to spend some time with his family.  This left me to fend for myself but I had spotted that there was a pizza place a short walk from my hotel, so I took myself off to there.  It was a bit like the Bella Pasta range and I enjoyed a perfectly good pizza and a pint of Baltika.  It seemed to be the place where all the bright young things went and I felt slightly out of it, sitting there on my, nursing my lager.  Nevertheless, I had survived my two days of teaching and could now look forward to getting home and enjoying the build up to Christmas before I had to start the whole process again with the second part of my course, in January.  I paid my bill, filched a drip mat as a souvenir, and headed back to my hotel.

 Watch out for more from The Moscow Chronicles coming soon!  You can find a lot more from Philip here