Conditional. The Class Clown. The Golden Moment.
We have many good friends in Russia: Nick and Veronica were our first and still remain close. They live in an apartment
in the outer suburbs of Vladivostok, and the apartment is owned by Irina, Veronica's mum. It's in a Stalinist block, concrete
and stairs, no lifts. The stairwells smell of urine and there's lots of graffiti on the common walls but inside the apartment
it's as clean and as tidy as a new pin, and very small. I recall their bathroom. The entire thing is about as big as just the
shower recess in our ensuite. We went to that apartment, not many westerners do. Through the locked door and into the larger
room which was also the sitting room which was also the dining room and also the lounge room and also the TV room. What a meal
they gave us there. Caviar, vodka, chicken, scones, cream, ham, wine. It was a feast. All on the coffee table in Irina's 40 sq
metre Soviet flat. We thought it was nice. Now we know it almost broke them. We didn't know it at the time but they spent 6 months
of their salary providing that meal. Irina, gave us gifts too. Soviet army slouch hats, bought at a disposal store no doubt, and we
thought they were great. Their love is unconditional. I don't know why. I wish ours was that absolute.
It was the end of the trip though. Our supervision was done. We were loose and fancy free. Just down the road, near the
Versailles, our hotel, and on the same side as the Kofe outlet, is the Rocks Bar. It was closed during the day, but we headed
there that night after the meal and we were carrying the gifted slouch hats too.
The Rocks Bar is noisy and full of people. It's dark and, in the dim light we can just make out a bar. What seems like several hundred patrons are
there too, many shoulder to shoulder at the bar. We are there. The music is loud. Half way up the stairs there's a bouncer,
muscle-bound and mean looking. There's a woman who's in charge I think, mustering patrons, seeing that everyone's OK. She greets us Zdrasvitre.
The local men are drinking beer, the women drinking wine. All are overheated and sweaty. We are drinking vodka. The local girls drink absinth.
In Sydney you can have two and that's the max. In Vladivostok there's no such health and safety limit, there are no boundaries. These girls
have had too much, and they keep drinking. Their eyes are bleary. They are sweaty like all of us. The barman pours absinth into large bowl-like
glasses on the bar. It's a green liquid. The girls just look on, dull eyed. Then the barman lights the liquid. He uses a gas operated blow
torch. The flames spread in all directions, the whole bar goes up. We dive for cover. Everyone laughs. There's a cheer. The girls savour
the gas that comes off the absinth, through straws, then they fall on the floor intoxicated, but get up again when only the afterglow remains.
It's their golden moment.
We put on the slouch hats. Next, everyone's getting photos taken with us. They're laughing and happy. What can we say,
at that stage we know so few words, but they are friends in the Rocks Bar. We know deep down though that we are the class
clowns, in the slouch hats that everyone borrows. It was a night to remember and I still have the hat.
We're moving away soon,
downsizing. Things have to be thrown away or sold but the slouch hat will remain.