Russia, March 15, 1999
How to drink a liter of Vodka and still make it to work.
|Wow, what a night! I've just come home from a night of fun
and drinking with my friends, and I've set a personal record.
Before I moved to Washington DC, I never really drank much. All through high school and university, I hung out with the drug crowd more often than the drinking crowd. If I ever ran for president, there is no way I could get away with saying I didn't inhale. I did, and often, but that's not what I'm writing about tonight.
Tonight I was out with the drinking crowd. First we went to dinner at a cool Russian restaurant, Yolki Polki, then, after the tasty meal, we went looking for a good bar. The fact it was Tuesday night didn't stop us. The fact that the bar we wanted to go to was closed didn't stop us. Not even the Smirnoff outlet store stopped us! Ok, it would have stopped us, but their bar was under remont.
After a good walk and a round of public urination (one of the few benefits of being a man), we made it to Vermel. After finding a table, a miracle on the weekends, we sat down and started some serous drinking. In true Russian tradition, we went for vodka, and a lot of it. We started with what one guy called a lemon drop, a shot followed by a lemon slice coated with sugar. Of course, the Russians among us though we were sissies. Any Russian will tell you that a vodka shot can only be chased by a pickle, a slice of bread, or the scent of a good woman.
I know, you think I'm kidding about the last one, but I'm serous. It's an old tradition to do a shot, then deeply inhale though the nose, the scent of a woman's hair. The tradition goes back to the time in old Rus, when a woman's hair was thought to be a corrupting influence, tempting men to do evil things. These days, its done more for fun, but still you should know the woman you sniff, lest you find her boyfriend/husband looking at you funny.
So there we were, doing the second, then the third, then the fourth round of the firewater, getting louder and jollier with each douse. Oddly enough, no matter how drunk men get, I've never seen a drunken fight here. In the states, all it takes is a six-pack and two men to have an argument, but in Russia, a bottle of vodka (or two) makes the room come alive with laughter. Maybe it's the 70 years of gulag punishment if you were rowdy, maybe it's the hard life that takes out all the fight, or maybe it's the cold night that awaits all who even come close to fisticuffs, but when the bottle opens, the troubles fade away.
After the fifth round, we ordered some food, so all this vodka wouldn't be sloshing around in our guts. I don't remember too much about the food, we were a bit past the functioning taste bud point, having given up the lemon chasers somewhere around the third or forth shot. As we ate, we signaled for the next round by flicking our necks. Odd way to get service, but we are in Russia, the only place in the world where this tradition could evolve from a poor man's choice. The story goes something like this:
During the time of the Tzars, a poor peasant somehow saved the life of the Tzar. The Tzar offered the man a reward for his service to the crown.
'Do you want gold?' asked the Tzar. 'No,' answered the peasant.
'Do you want land?' asked the Tzar. 'No,' answered the peasant.
'Do you want women?' asked the Tzar. 'No,' answered the peasant.
'Well, what do you want? Asked the Tzar. 'My only wish is for all the vodka I can drink!' answered the peasant.
So the Tzar tattooed his personal seal on the neck of the peasant, and from then on, the peasant would walk into a tavern, flick the tattoo on his neck and shout 'We drink!'
Two hundred years later, Russians are still flicking their necks and drinking, and now I too, have this habit.
Shots six through nine were done too fast for the obligatory toast. Usually, we say a toast before each shot, starting with a toast to the present company, and then extending out to whom or whatever you desire. I do remember one toast, made for all the tea in China, which was topped by a toast to everyone in the world, except us. The Georgians are said to have toasts so long that your arms get tired, and I hope to look into that when I travel through Southern Russia this summer.
By shot ten, I was amazed at my drinking ability. I'd made it this far without passing out, what I usually do somewhere around shot six. If you do the math, at 50 cl a round, I consumed half a liter of vodka by then. Half a liter! And when I stood up to walk tot he toilet, I realized that my legs were more drunk than my head.
Shortly after shot ten, and a tall glass of water, I stumbled to the taxi for a ride home. After two ice cream bars, a long phone call that I hardly remember, and a half-attempt at cleaning off my bed, I was sound asleep. The next morning found me devoid of altitude sickness (I could stand without my head exploding), and after a long shower, I was off to work. Oh yeah, did I mention this was a weeknight too? No rest for the Muscovite!