Sometimes the entire fate of a travel experience hinges on a single, seemingly innocuous choice early in the journey. For me, in St. Petersburg, Russia, it was a decision to stroll the wide sidewalks of Nevsky Prospekt, the famous street in the heart of the city, upon arriving from the airport one winter night, instead of going to bed like a sensible person and sleeping off my jet lag. This whimsical meander eventually led me down a side street past the Gostiny Dvor shopping mall and into a hipster dive bar called Fidel, where I ordered a beer.
As can happen in Russia, this beer led to another, which led to a conversation with a plump, blue-eyed 28-year-old named Natasha (of course), who introduced me to her slightly younger, slimmer, and quieter friend Olga (of course) and a crimson-mohawked punk rocker named (less predictably) Voodoo. After a few pleasantries, Natasha took me out to the cramped, smoky dance floor, which writhed with young Russians grooving to ’90s-era grunge music. After a single song, Natasha furrowed her brow at my dancing and led me back to the bar. “He needs to drink more,” she announced.
Voodoo bought me a fresh beer and told me about his aspirations as a punk drummer. “So what are your band’s influences?” I asked him. “The Ramones? Sex Pistols? Minor Threat?” Voodoo gave me a blank look and said, “These are punk bands?” He rattled off a list of Russian groups, none of which I recognized. Our conversation thus devolved into a sub-linguistic noise exchange, each of us humming punk riffs and shouting lyrics in an attempt to find common ground. After 15 minutes, we hadn’t made much progress: Somehow, Voodoo had come of age in a Russian hardcore scene that claimed no reference to any influences outside of itself. Natasha giggled at our air-guitar pantomimes. “You are like two old men yelling in different dialects of the same language,” she said, “understanding nothing.”
Natasha announced that we would chase our beer with vodka shots. “Only Americans and teenagers drink vodka with orange juice,” she said. “Here you must drink vodka like a man.” We threw the shots back, and Natasha told stories about her ex-husband (a pleasant but incompetent fellow named, of course, Boris), her job (as a copy editor for a petrol company newsletter), and what it was like to grow up Jewish in a small Ural mountain town (“I only wanted to go someplace else”).
As the night faded into early morning, the four of us left the bar to get more vodka from a street kiosk, and this led to a taxi excursion away from the city center and across the Neva River to Olga’s apartment, where we had a beguiling little banquet of coleslaw, salo (cold pork fat), and said vodka. Poetry was recited; Russian-American brotherhood was declared; my eventual entreaties to go back to my hotel and sleep were rebuffed with more vodka and more declarations of international brotherhood. By 10 in the morning, I found myself still wide awake as I navigated the Cyrillic brain-map of the St. Petersburg metro system back to my hotel.
I slept into the evening, then wandered out to a bar called Dacha (next door to Fidel), and more or less repeated the routine of the night before—in the company of a whole new cast of characters (one of whom was also named Natasha). And so, my fate in Russia was set: For the remainder of my time in St. Petersburg, I lived liked a vampire, only rarely stumbling into daylight. This schedule, I was to discover, would grant me an understanding of Russia I might never have achieved otherwise.
After my night of high jinks with the second Natasha (and her friends Sergei and Annika), I resolved to experience some daytime culture in Russia’s most cosmopolitan city. I’d explored the Hermitage on previous visits, so I decided to make an excursion to the Kunstkammer Museum— Peter the Great’s macabre collection of czarist-era ethnography exhibits and such medical oddities as mutant fetus skeletons—just across the Neva River from central St. Petersburg. But since I was now waking up a couple of hours after sundown, I had 12 hours to kill, while most of the city was at home or asleep, before I could visit the Kunstkammer.
Wandering out for the third night in a row, I noticed how the darkened hours offered a wonderful perspective on the snowy, canal-girded streets of St. Petersburg. Thoroughfares that in the day might have felt slush-clotted and traffic-jammed felt lyrically peaceful. Mists hung over the canals as I walked the dim avenues, and the city’s splendid neoclassical, baroque, and art nouveau buildings glowed in vibrant pastel shades above the streetlights. Standing near the Winter Palace on the Dvortsovy Most, with the city winking all around me and the icy Neva flowing underneath the bridge, it felt as if I had the whole place to myself.
After four hours of meandering, I slipped into a live-music club called Mod, where I befriended four teenagers (Andrei, Vanya, Anya, and Sander) who were celebrating the 19th birthday of a fifth, Darina. A self-proclaimed virgin, Darina clutched a gag-gift copy of the Kama Sutra and made her way through the club planting bright lipstick kisses on everyone’s cheeks. In keeping with the cross-cultural protocol of teens worldwide, the five young revelers wasted little time in teaching me the Russian phrase for “fuck off, dick” (idi na hui). After cheerfully telling a steady stream of young Russians idi na hui (which, judging by the reaction, is the funniest possible phrase that can come from the mouth of an American at 4 in the morning), I received a sticky red kiss from Darina and made my way to a bar called Belgrad (which just so happens to be located next to the bars Fidel and Dacha).
I hadn’t been in Belgrad for 60 seconds before a tall bombshell of a woman came up and said something to me in Russian. I replied in English that I didn’t speak Russian; she told me in French that she didn’t speak English; I asked her in French if she spoke Spanish; she said “sí” and introduced herself as Alexandra. The four hours of poorly conjugated phrases that ensued would have made a Spaniard smirk (“Me has cat of color blue; his name are Katerina!” “I is live in house of farmer in Kansas during not to travel!”), but I count it among the most captivating conversations I’ve had in all my years on the road.
Alexandra was dressed to kill, sporting a pair of knee-high boots that made her look like a cross between a dominatrix and a bear hunter. Had she been fluent in English, I might have been too tongue-tied to charm her—but in broken Spanish we became fast friends.
Alexandra’s father, I learned, hailed from Dagestan, a mountainous republic in the North Caucasus known for ethnic diversity and political turmoil; she helped her Russian mother run a convenience store in the Petrogradskaya neighborhood, and the two of them were saving money to visit Egypt; she’d once lived in Granada with a Spanish boyfriend, but he broke her heart (“I has loved him big, but he to have other wives,” she said, to which I replied, “My heart are sad for you”). Like many unmarried Russians, she lived with her family, and there wasn’t a lot of privacy. Staying out all night and partying, she said, wasn’t a mindless diversion; it was a chance to taste a bit of freedom, to treat the whole city like it was your living room.
As we sat in the bar, yelling fragmented Spanish over the din of music, my entire Russia experience suddenly made more sense. Freed from the demands of linguistic precision, I had stumbled into a kind of communication that somehow rang more emotionally true, more authentically Russian. On previous nights I’d felt lucky to find such ready companionship in the St. Petersburg wee hours; now I was beginning to understand it wasn’t a matter of luck so much as a unique expression of Russian life. I could see it as a kind of human communion—a sincere attempt to get past glib superficialities and communicate something more subtle, more connected to the messy splendor of being alive.
After a breakfast of spicy-sour solyanka soup and beer at an after-hours joint called Dubai, Alexandra and I caught a bus to the far side of the Neva. I invited her to join me in the Kunstkammer, but she just laughed, said she was sleepy, and planted a smudgy red beso right next to Darina’s. “You is my one night sweetheart of to talk funny,” she said to me in Spanish.
I couldn’t have said it any better myself.