The Hungry Duck
By the end of last week's column I was cold, soaking wet, and alone in the streets of Moscow, faced with the prospect of spending my first night abroad desperately huddled up under some old cardboard in an entryway somewhere. But the good luck I'd had in navigating the public transportation system held up, and I didn't end up spending the night in the streets after all. Not that night, anyway.
As I was attempting to communicate my situation to two frightened old ladies using a soggy map of the city roughly the size of a postage stamp, a voice spoke up in English. "What are you trying to find?" I turned to see a young man about my age dressed in an expensive looking suit and sporting a beat up old traveler's backpack. He spoke with a Spanish accent. "Galena's Flat," I began, thinking of how I might explain my situation even in my own tongue. "Ah, you are lucky," he replied, "that's where I'm headed. Come with me."
I was a bit hesitant to follow a complete stranger through a city I didn't know, but the alternatives were pretty grim. We talked; his name was Oscar and he was Argentinean, yet he was fluent in both English and Russian, and he possessed a great deal of knowledge about the city. Oscar turned out to be an invaluable companion; not only did he lead me to Galena's Flat, but over the next few days he took me around the city and explained the history of various buildings and places around town. He also taught me how to avoid the corrupt cops lurking around Red Square preying on tourists: look Russian. That is, carry an open beer with you no matter what time of day it is and try not to look like you're enjoying yourself too much. It worked; I saw a lot of tourists getting fined, but the police paid me no attention.
When I wasn't with Oscar though, things got pretty slow. I'd never really thought of what to do once actually traveling. Somehow I thought the exciting times would take care of themselves and I'd just be holding on for the ride, but there I was with long days, no friends, and nothing to do. I walked the boulevards, filled with boisterous teenagers drinking, partying, and just generally having fun at all times of day, but they weren't very open to strangers. So I brought this up with Oscar, and we decided to go out on the town.
We were to meet one night at the Hungry Duck, one of Moscow's most notorious bars. I found the place alright, but there was no sign of Oscar. A rough crowd hung around outside, so I bought a beer from a nearby kiosk and hung back, trying not to look like I was enjoying myself too much. I wasn't. It didn't take long for a few of them to spot me though, and soon I was surrounded. Things started off friendly enough, but the language barrier drove a rift between us. One of them would say something, to which I would shrug and reply in Russian that I didn't speak Russian. Perhaps they'd already had a few too many, but they didn't seem able to process such a paradoxical statement. After louder, angrier, and more saliva-charged attempts at communicating, they started getting physical, but I was pulled out of their midst just in time by a middle aged woman with more make-up on than clothes.
Her name was Dasha; she spoke English and she was looking for a place to stay and maybe for a little bit of money too. I told her I wasn't interested. Even if for some reason I had been, I had no place to stay — Oscar had the only key to the apartment complex in which we were staying. Still, I was grateful she had pulled me from the mob (which by this point had turned into a full blown brawl), and since I had nowhere to go, I sat on the curb and talked with her for a bit. She talked mostly about her life and growing up in Moscow, and then she paused. She turned to me abruptly and looked deep into my eyes. "What I really want," she said, "is to find somebody who will love me, somebody who will take me from this place. True love." Her hand inched towards mine on the curb. Mine yarded away. A bottle flew out from the fighting mob and smashed in front of us, breaking the awkward silence. "Well," I said, standing up, "you, uh hmm. You never know what tomorrow will bring. As for me, well, I, um need to get going." And with that, I was off.
It must have been about 2 a.m. by then, and Oscar still hadn't shown up. Without Oscar and the apartment key, there was nowhere for me to go. I walked through the dark streets across the city to where I was supposed to be staying, and then back to the Hungry Duck. Still nothing. For the second time in a week I was faced with the prospect of sleeping out in the streets of Moscow. This time though, it didn't seem as though luck was on my side.