war on the rocks

Dispatches from the Kremlin, Dispatch Two: Home is Where the Drinks Are

May 26, 2015

I don’t always miss the free world, but when I do, I’m usually sitting at a table in a Moscow bar.

When Americans think of “bars,” the archetype of loud, dark spaces with flickering lights from numerous televisions probably comes to mind. For Americans in their mid-twenties, bars are where we do much of our socializing. If there’s a big game or fight, a big date, or a birthday, we often congregate in our hallowed public houses. It’s a quintessential part of American culture.

The most important part of a bar for me is the physical “bar” itself — a glorious block of wood or chunk of metal where those seeking a tasty adult beverage can post up for an indefinite amount of time. The physical bar where one grabs a stool and sits is multi-dimensional. Whether you’re there for ten minutes or ten hours it hardly ever lets you down, always willing to accommodate.

As a former barman, there are few things I enjoy more than sitting at a bar and watching whomever is behind that bar go about their business. To me it’s a mix of entertainment and appreciation for what they do. Many of us don’t appreciate our bartenders because we don’t really understand how much skill, multitasking ability, and patience it takes to be good behind the stick. I can say without a doubt that bartending is definitely the most difficult profession that I have ever worked, and that’s speaking as someone who currently teaches children ages 9-12. Knowing a good bartender is a vital part of American culture. Hell, I could rattle off at least a dozen names of amazing bartenders up and down the east coast, from D.C. to Boston.

Sadly, I can’t tell you the names of those who have prepared my drinks for me here in Moscow, because as a customer in a Russian bar, you have minimal contact with the bartender. The whole idea of setting up camp for a night of tippling at the physical bar itself doesn’t appear to have reached Russian soil yet.

It was the second week of April, 35 degrees (Fahrenheit) and rainy, but my body’s clock was already telling me that spring had arrived. Of course, for any good, red-blooded American, the arrival of spring also signifies the arrival of the American holy of holies: baseball. While nearly every pub, bar, tavern, saloon, and gin joint in the United States will play the local team’s games until October, the chances of finding a good spot to wet my whistle and take in a game were slim in Moscow.

A buddy of mine, who is an avid Minnesota Twins fan and much more of a go-getter than myself (my motivation is pretty similar to that of my beloved Red Sox right now), started making calls before Opening Day to see if we could find at least one bar that would show any game, let alone one we cared about. We just wanted to watch baseball, which meant that if push came to shove, we were even willing to frequent the local Hooters (Eastern European girls in short shorts serving delicious chicken, poor me). Luckily, my friend and his stick-to-it-iveness were able to run down a lead on a place called The Hudson, located near Moscow’s famous Belorusskaya Station. He said that last year during the Kentucky Derby, he and his friends were there for about 12 hours. More importantly, the staff apparently knew what a mint julep was and how to make one.

We arrived around 8pm and were greeted by a gale of accents mixing with classic rock blaring on the sound system. This caught us unawares. Usually, when you walk into a bar in Moscow, it’s quiet (compared to an American bar), with murmurs of Russian lightly bouncing off the walls. The Hudson, however, was filled to the brim with Irish, Scottish (I think, as I couldn’t understand a word they said), English, and loudest of all, American voices. There may have been a few Canadians thrown into the mix as well, but who can really say? I was in shock, as it seemed like I had switched continents in a matter of seconds. So this is where all the expats were.

My friend and I soon learned that we would have to wait to speak to the owner about getting baseball on the televisions. Within a few minutes, a young fellow with a Jack Daniel’s ball cap strolled up to us and immediately shook our hands. He introduced himself as Eric Withers, and said that he and his twin brother owned the place. It turned out that he was from D.C. as well, and we chatted about some of our old haunts in the capital. He had come to Moscow in the nineties to work as a financial advisor, and through a series of events, as is custom for those of us who stumbled upon the bar industry, wound up behind the stick a few years ago. He pulled up a few stools for us at the bar (finally!), connected one of his televisions to the bar’s Apple TV, and then proceeded to find the stream to the Twins-Royals game my friend was so keen on watching (I’m still in a bit of shock that the Royals are a good ball club to be honest).

I have to say I was thrown off, as hospitality in bars and restaurants here is minimal. Often, servers in Moscow make guests feel like they are an inconvenience, and one must get used to waiting for food and drink, which sometimes never come. Eric and his staff, however, made sure we were comfortable, and we watched the game while tossing back a few beers and noshing on some spicy buffalo wings (spicy food is quite hard to come by in these parts), pizza, and fries, leaning gleefully on the bar all the while, unafraid to occasionally yell obscenities at the TV. We left with our bellies full of American-style fare and our pockets a bit lighter in Russian currency, satisfied.

While I rarely frequent expat spots here in Moscow for various reasons (the noise being one of them), I must say that it was amazing to step back into the West for an evening. Not necessarily because of the isolation experienced as a foreigner, but because there is just something natural about grabbing a stool, posting up, catching a game, and chatting with a buddy and the people around you. That might be what I miss the most about the states — casual conversations with strangers that turn something that doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, like baseball, into something momentarily meaningful and worthy of passion. I guess that’s why sitting at the bar is important to us. It allows us a temporary break from the things in life that really matter, and because of that break, we end up appreciating and understanding important things in a greater capacity.

I’ll be sure to stop into The Hudson again around late September, when the Red Sox shock the nation and rally for October. I’ll also be sure to remember Eric’s name, meaning I have to expand my list of bartenders to an international map.

From Moscow, Za Starovya (cheers).

 

Max Shelton is an American M.A. candidate at Middlebury College currently living, working, and drinking in Moscow, Russia. In his spare time (when he is not drinking), he enjoys writing, reading, and watching Better Call Saul. He is writing his dissertation in Russian about American intervention in the Russian Civil War between 1917-1922.

 

Photo credit: Stepan Mazurov