– by Michael!
As mentioned in a previous post, the early summer of 2004 saw yours truly traversing the northern rim of Europe with a ragtag group of lovable scamps in choir robes. As I’m sure you are aware, the cultures of Europe are far more lax regarding the consumption of “adult beverages,” so we had to make sure that the younger ones among us were at least cognizant of what they were drinking and why they needed to watch out for it – because there is often a high cost when drinking in a strange place.
In some cases, the high cost was right there in front of us. For instance, a beer in the hotel bar in Helsinki cost a whopping nine Euros – at the time of our trip, that was just shy of twelve good ol’ Washingtons for a pint of beer. And this wasn’t the “good stuff,” either, mind you – just straight up regular beer for the same price as half a movie ticket!
There were also cases in which the drinking itself was a cost – for instance, in St. Petersburg we sang with a phenomenal men’s chorus who proceeded to invite us en masse to their favorite restaurant/bar, wherein their leader invited our leader to join him in a series of increasingly slurry toasts.
Our leader was, of course, Mr. Berg himself, who is not what one could call “a drinker.” At all. I think he might have three glasses of wine a year.
And these toasts were all, of course, punctuated with shots of vodka.
Such was the price of international camaraderie! He couldn’t very well refuse, for that would have been very rude. But one sniff was enough to convince my father that this was a genuinely Bad Idea, and the language barrier was thin enough for him to be able to tell that this ritual was probably going to last a while.
God bless my mother, who proceeded to surreptitiously dump out his endlessly refilled vodka and replace it with water from a bottle in her purse. I mean, I was watching for something like this, since after the first round of ten shots or so I was certain that Dad was not actually drinking vodka, and I couldn’t tell what she was doing.
Thus were we spared both the embarrassment of refusing this weird little ritual of friendship and the embarrassment of having to carry my father back to the hotel after scraping him off the floor with a spatula.
There was also one evening when, after the initial novelty had worn off for most of the kids in the group, the assistant choir director and I had the opportunity to have a candid talk with many of the girls in our group (particularly those who had just graduated) about taking care when drinking when they went off to college – that they needed to keep friends around them, that they should watch their drinks, that they should gravitate away from sweet and sugary beverages because of what sinister compounds these drinks can hide when mixed in the hands of strangers. And that they should remember that drinking is far from a necessity for having fun, most of all. Maybe they listened, maybe they didn’t, but the opportunity was there and we tried to give warning.
But the best case of the “hidden cost” of drinking was evidenced on our first full day in Russia, when we went to Peterhoff – the Russian Versailles.
I encourage you to check out the link above and read up on this place – not only is the building itself quite stunning, but its history is very engrossing, as well. For our purposes, I’ll just point out that this palace, one of the great treasures of the Russian nation, was occupied and despoiled during the Second World War, and that its restoration has taken generations of work and billions of dollars.
That’s right. Has taken. As in, they are not done.
When we were there, they had almost finished work on the palace proper, restoring the giltwork throughout the building, borrowing period furnishings from throughout the nation, replacing the scarred floor with antique materials carefully cannibalized from other famous structures of the same time period. In fact, they were so careful of their floors that we had to wear little plastic slippers over our shoes as we made our progress through the structure.
And our progress was fast. Because apparently the entire city of St. Petersburg, and maybe all of Moscow, too, had decided to come and visit Peterhoff that day. There must have been thousands in attendance, all milling the grounds, all chattering and smoking outside, all trying to cram into the elegant halls at the same time while irritable docents urged us to hurry through, hurry through, come come come keep it moving.
Seriously, the people running the museum were very intent upon us getting in and out as quickly as possible. It was as though we were dining at a Waffle House rather than enjoying one of the world’s greatest architectural wonders.
The result of both the press of people and the pace we were keeping was a great deal of both stress and heat inside the un-air-conditioned palace, both of which took a decidedly unpleasant toll on one of our number.
Now, this young man would later insist that he had not been drinking the night before, or at least not enough to be hung over. Rather, he had inadvertently imbibed some of the famously poor St. Petersburg water while brushing his teeth, or some such. In either case, however, he needed to be more careful of what he was drinking, because the resulting stomach surge combined with the heat and press of people inside Peterhoff had drastic, yet predictable results:
He had to throw up.
Now, a more seasoned international traveler would have broken with the group, snagged a docent, and mimed the appropriate response so as to receive escort to an appropriate location. Failing that, he could have removed his ball-cap or outer T-Shirt and used these as receptacles for the impending disaster. Not appetizing, but contained.
This fellow, however, tried to keep a lid on himself, put his head down, and power through. And when it became obvious that this was NOT going to work, he ducked behind a curtain and …
Into a chair.
From whence it spilled both onto said curtain and onto the floor.
All three of these items were antiques. Perhaps not priceless antiques, but certainly valued. Extremely valued.
And he was observed.
By me, for one. I saw him disappear and heard the ensuing noise and was concerned. So I expressed said concern, even when he made it clear that no, he was fine, nothing happened, drop it, please.
Unfortunately, he was not able to ask the docent who witnessed The Event to drop it, both because she spoke no English and because she was highly distressed at the desecration of their newly restored national monument.
We must have formed quite a comic picture – me on the one side, hand on his shoulder, asking “Are you sure you’re ok?” while the tiny Russian woman on the other side tugged insistently on his arm and began to inform him with increasing urgency and volume that he needed to come with her immediately.
As with most problems in Russia (from what I hear), the solution ended up being a “small fine payable in cash.” The bribe in question was about two hundred and fifty dollars, but I’m sure my father considered it a worthy cost for keeping one of his idiot kids out of Siberian exile.
So always remember – count the cost of your drinks, make sure you bring a friend to watch your back, and always keep an eye on your beverage. Oh, and for the love of all that’s good and holy, aim away from the antiques.