We spent a couple days as standard tourists in Moscow. I toured Red Square, saw Lenin in his glass coffin, wandered the famous outdoor “Arbat” street market, and had the first of many meals featuring cucumbers.
Next, we hopped on the overnight train from Moscow to Saint Petersburg where we were to spend the next month at our sister school, SPITMO. The St. Petersburg University of IT, Mechanics, and Optics (just like the city itself) had recently stripped Leningrad from its name due to the still-fresh fall of the Soviet Union.
We met up with a group of SPITMO students charged with being our guides in this fine city. Besides a few hours of formal language instruction each day, we were on our own to run wild through the city. Looking back, there is no way in hell I’d allow one of my kids to travel with Peter Priest. But his apparent lack of responsibility for my personal safety is one of the best things that could have happened to me.
We had arrived during the famous “White Nights” of St. Petersburg. The city’s northerly lattitude means the sun doesn’t set for about month each summer. Noon is indistinguishable from midnight. They don’t even bother turning on the streetlights at night!
About 3 days in, our student guides arranged a party in our honor. They met us at our apartment complex, flagged down some taxis, and took us to a classic Russian flat in some unknown part of the city for a night of heavy drinking. These kids really put on a party. They introduced us to all kinds of traditional Russian foods, alcoholic punches, and chilled vodka.
A few hours into the party, my classmates were ready to turn in. This was the first serious test of our role-play lessons on declining vodka. Unfortunately, I was ten foot tall and bulletproof by this point. I had zero interest in bed. “You all can go back if you want, but I’m staying!” That statement got immediate cheers and pats on the back from my hosts.
My classmates tried to talk me out of it, but I turned to a couple of our hosts and said, “You know where my apartment is, right? You can get me home later, no problem, right?” To which, they eagerly replied, “Da, da, no problem at all!” With that ironclad assurance, I said goodbye to my classmates and downed another shot.
After under a year of studying Russian part-time, I quickly discovered that I was incapable of conversing without a heavy reliance on hand signals and help from a couple of the Russians who knew a fair amount of English.
Sometime after midnight, my hosts got excited about leaving the flat. After lots of gesturing and some stumbling through my pocket dictionary, they seemed to be suggesting we go watch the drawbridges open. Apparently it was going to happen at 1:30am and it was going to be a big deal.
Still skeptical of my translation skills, I stepped out into the street. Somehow we made our way to a drawbridge on the famous Neva river. There was a huge crowd of people lining both sides of the canal. All were in a party mood and expectantly watching the bridge.
Sure enough, the drawbridge opened at 1:30am. The crowd cheered. The bridge closed, and we all dispersed. I didn’t understand why this was such a celebrated moment, but chalked it up to being drunk.
Two of my new friends joined me in a cab and gave the driver directions back to my apartment. When we arrived, I reached to shake their hands, and they pulled me in for huge parting hugs. The cab left with my new friends and I climbed the steps, now fully ready for some sleep.
I pushed the 7th floor button in the lobby and waited for the elevator to come down. Suddenly there was a racket behind me as the apartment attendant woke up and started yelling at me. After a few minutes digging through my dictionary, I finally realized she was saying:
“You don’t live here. You don’t live here. You don’t live here.”
She was obviously wrong. This was the exact same lobby I’d left earlier in the day. Every detail was identical… until I noticed the chair next to the elevator. That afternoon, I distinctly remembered seeing more of a 2 person love seat there. I looked back at the lady, she jerked her finger at the front door, and my heart stopped. I stepped out into the street. Very alone, very lost, very drunk, and very much in danger.