You find yourself in a strange city. It's cold, it's wet and everything is unknown. What to do, where to go? You meander along.
The snow is not so deep. At -17 degrees though it's pretty cold and the footpath is slippery. The foyers of large buildings are
slippery too but there's cars still plying the roads, noisy, with a constant rumble. You peer into doorways and look into windows.
Because you don't understand the language, the best you can do is try to figure out what kind of wears they have. If there's dresses,
you assume it's a clothes shop. If its flowers and vases and cast iron racks, well, you suppose it's a florist. All the buildings and
doors are closed, yet there's some light from some of the rooms. It's not tinsel town and there's not too many advertising boards,
just a few, and they're often subdued, and the text is Cyrillic.
To your left is the harbour. The statues stand tall and grand and don't seem to feel the cold despite the snow on their
shoulders. You pull your collar higher and try to look out that way. There's one or two ships there, grey and still in the
mist. You think you can see a person on their deck but you aren't sure. Maybe all the sailors are inside, maybe the ships are
empty. The harbour is covered with a few inches of ice but that's not enough to stop any ship from coming in or going out, they
can crack the ice and move along. They move slowly, and unless you listen really hard, noiselessly too. On the shore nearby there's
a green bottomed submarine up on the footpath and it's long and cold and snowy. It has a name and words on a plaque too, but you can't understand them.
You come across a hole in the road. It's not a pothole or a car park puddle, it's a shaft of blackness, deep and opens onto
the white snow. No barriers stop walkers, and no notices warn them. Luckily it's not quite dark yet or you might fall down.
Somehow the hole's presence just makes you colder. Maybe it's the thought of what would happen if you were in there. A tall
building stands on the other side near the railway line, it's the colour of enamel and rectangular. A wisdom tooth. Overhead
is a mass of electric wires, crossing the street and tangling at the corners. They terminate on thick black boards fastened
somehow to the concrete of the grey buildings. Overall it's a grey city. The grey of the snow, the grey of the harbour and the
grey of the sky. Occasionally you see a splash of colour, a movie poster or a bowl advertising a restaurant.
That makes you think. Maybe you should get a drink or something to eat. A little further along that frosty footpath is a
stairway. That stairway is in the middle of the footpath too, in line with where you're walking and with wooden rails either
side. It leads down to what looks initially like a subway but stops, and down there there's a door. It's shut. There's no way
you can tell what kind of place this is. It's not as if it has windows you can peer into. No noise comes out, no people walk in
or out. It's a mystery.
You go down there and when you push open the door you're in a tunnel or foyer or anti room. There's coat hooks there and a
few coats are there already. You hang yours and proceed into the darkness, along the corridor and into the inner room. There,
it's dark but you can see there's about 10 tables. Some are small and for one person or two people, and an upper level contains
a long table set for about 16 people. There's a nook too. A deep inner area behind some pillars, and there tables seem to be reserved
for lovers or intimate friends. It's so quiet, so dark.
At a table for two you sit and look around. There's a bar over on the right with two beautiful women serving. Why not? You
approach and see that behind them is a large array of bottles and so you just ask for a drink by name: "Scotch please",
in English, and they understand. They pour a couple for you and you move back to the table. It's in the middle of the floor
directly in front of the stage. There in that place it's so dark and still and you ponder the drink and the mood. On the stage
there's an electric keyboard and a computer screen. Your eyes become accustomed to the light and a green tinge quietly also appears.
Two performers. A man with a guitar and a woman with a microphone. The keyboard fires up and she steps forward and starts to sing.
What music it is too, fully featured and rich with grace notes. You can hear many instruments. Somehow that keyboard is doing it all.
Then he starts to play, and smooth and loud guitar music pulses out to compliment her singing. You can't understand the words but music
is music and the beat is good. Next there's a song in English and you kind of know it, a little. One or two people are dancing now.
Well why not try another drink. You get back to that bar and the women are still there. "Scotch?" they say, and a shake of your head means
No. "Black Russians" you say. They are just as confused as you. They've never heard of them. You say: "One part vodka, one part Kahlua, plus
ice." That's it. Even this simple recipe is hard to explain, but somehow, with pointing and body language and multiple tries you get the
message across and they make it. It is perhaps their first. If this is a city and a night club and if they are up on all the recipes, like
regular bartenders, you wonder how they can be so naive. To not be familiar with this well known Western drink seems unlikely. Then you
realise, maybe that's the problem. This isn't the west and instead, this is the real thing. This is not some sophisticated or dreamlike
place out of a movie, like Rick's Bar in Casablanca. This is an actual bar, in a real city. It's -17 degrees outside and the town is pretty
deserted. Is it a dream? You realise too that you are a long way from home.
When you try to get back to the table you realise that there's now many more people dancing than before. That floor is pretty full and
your table is on the other side. You skirt through and around, elbows up, drinks in hand. "Excuse me", but they can't hear you for the
music. They understand though, they smile or ignore you and somehow you get there. Above and behind you is that large table. It seems
to be on a higher level that yours and it's full. Most of the patrons there look like brothers and there's a birthday girl of maybe
18 years sitting at the end. In the middle there's an older lady, perhaps a grandmother. A family outing in a bar.
That music is loud, but it's still just the two of them performing and lots of electronic machinery and before you know it the music
stops. A break. The dancers go back to their tables in the dark, or to the bar. The singing man approaches you. "Hi, where are you from?"
he says, without any accent. "Australia". "Ah, I was there! I played in Sydney" He knows the place, Sydney Opera House, The Bridge, Kings
Cross, George St, The Basement. He's been there and names them all. When they start to play again there's little hesitation and dancers
come flooding back to that floor. Before you know it you are dancing there too. Dragged up by some person you don't know and involved in
some kind of traditional dance, or conga line. I have no idea what I'm doing. It's the drink, it's the place, and I'm no dancer anyway.
I fluff through, somehow making gestures and copying others. Everyone is smiling. They are very forgiving because I know I'm far from a
natural. I have no movement, no plays or motions. An old guy with a clumsy gait. No-one cares. I am exhausted and sitting down at the
end of the bracket and it's another drink.
"What song do you want?" she says. It must be getting towards the end of the evening and there's just requests now. There's only one song
I know, that they'll know: Moscow Nights. "Do you know Moscow Nights?" "Da", and the music starts. The tune is familiar and everyone except
me in that place knows the words. They sing along. It gets louder. It's a crowd pleaser, a fitting end.
Just then, as the last few chords fade away some birthday cake arrives, brought to our table by one of the brothers, and vodka glasses for
toasts. He first puts down the empty glasses and then fills them. I can't help noticing the name on the vodka bottle 'Kalashnikov'.
We are somehow included in their party. We look around, and up, and all 16 of them are toasting too. We join in. What are they saying?
It sounds like "starovia"?. My fear and trepidation turns to inclusion. We are somehow guests at that birthday and happily eat the cake
and drink their health.
Up the stairs and onto the street it's cold and dark again, and the hotel is somewhere up this way, I think. Left, ahead. Now,
slightly to the left. Up the hill. It's a blur. No barriers stop walkers, and no notices warn them. Somehow we avoid the holes.
I pull my collar higher against the cold and try to look ahead. The foyers of large buildings are slippery. A room is a room, like everywhere.