From Russia with Vodka Pt 2

32859123_10214550664813930_6014968807464894464_n.jpg

I suppose I should have remembered that the tanks were coming.

The morning had begun on an unusual note. I was awoken by the snores of another bunkmate, showered, and sat in the common area over a cup of instant coffee (Russia is a mecca for instant coffee). Mustafah, an employee of the hostel, walked into the kitchen,“Guys, remember, it is forbidden to open the windows today until three pm.”

Someone made a sarcastic comment about rooftop snipers, as everyone else continued to gawk out the windows like children on the morning of Christmas. A man rushed in with his laptop and began fiddling with the television’s HDMI cord.

“It is starting soon,” an older gentleman interjected, “Hurry!”

A few weeks prior, I developed an idea to go hostel-hopping. My plan was simple: jump hostel to hostel, interview strangers, document it and create something from all the content. Ultimately, learning to play tourist in Moscow in the process. During my hunt, I found a hostel located on Tverskaya Street, the main street downtown, called Vagabond. The prices were affordable with various room options ranging from $13 to $20 a night (depending on room size and demand). The pictures and reviews online seemed promising, so I decided to give it a shot.

32901470_10214550731655601_1363072205700726784_n.jpg

I packed my bag, jumped on a train, and an hour later found myself ringing the doorbell of my destination. When I entered, I was greeted by the hostel owner and given a tour. After throwing my things in my room, I went into the common kitchen area where a few people were hanging out. The room was warmed by red walls cluttered with an array of postcards, pictures, and thought-provoking art. On the right side of the room, stood a large glass table. On the table’s opposite sides, were two old, beaten up sofas, and chairs placed at each of the ends. I found the nearest chair, and after being offered a glass of wine by the owner, I began my project (stay tuned as I fail and rediscover hostel booze culture).

What started as a personal writing assignment turned into weeks of frequent visits and encounters with old and new faces. Immediately I was thrown back into the culture of zero plans and spontaneous actions all mixed with late nights and partying. As I became a participant in this culture, I watched as my basic intuition was abandoned, and was replaced by the curiosity of where I may be led. I began to say yes to invitations, and I found myself anywhere and everywhere. It led me to have an awkward few beers in one of the Seven Sisters Skyscrapers designed during the Soviet era. Another evening, I found myself sober, people watching at the nightclub GIPSY where older Russian men waltz with hookah. However, one of the best places I stumbled upon during my adventures was the park where the Devil first visited Moscow in Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic novel, "Master and Margarita" (go and read it if you haven’t) while drinking a few glasses of wine.

                                                                                                      ***

32838613_10214550673774154_2091995964775596032_n.jpg

The coffee still had not hit me, and I didn’t recognize anyone in the kitchen that morning. The night before I had watched as my Croatian friend, Leon, prepared to depart for a seven-day train ride on the Trans-Mongolian Rail line from Moscow to Beijing (get this, seven days and no shower). Leon was anxious, running around the hostel as he grabbed all his luggage to prepare for his impending departure. Wearing Adidas sweatpants and sports apparel; he was beginning to become a spitting image of a stereotypical Russian guy. Over a hand-rolled cigarette, Leon talked with me about his love of trains and told me that his hope for the journey was,

“[To] meet some people, hopefully, some interesting people. I don’t know anyone alive, anyone, from my surrounding that went through a thing like that [train ride].”

Leon was gone now.

32852254_10214550662213865_3396619579747729408_n.jpg

That’s the semi-bittersweet aspect of hostel culture. The flow of people, coming and going. The exchange of thoughts and experiences. Short-term friendships that may or may not continue past the hostel. Ultimately, the thing I love the most about hostel culture is the interaction between people from across the world, all caught in one spot, and the opportunity it gives to understand each other’s perspective on the city you’re in. Whether that’s from an Austrian who decided to study in Siberia because it seemed like a new and interesting experience. A mysterious guy from Lithuania who may or may not be in Russia as a hitman, but always seems to know what to do or where to go in the city. Or even volunteers lured to Russia for different reasons such as experiencing the World Cup first hand, meeting beautiful Russian woman on tinder, or simply for the sake of Russian culture. Then there is my new Brazilian friend, Julia, who emits a sophistication seemingly lost to the world of classic novels, who almost always has a book in hand and glasses resting on her nose, secured by a chain reminiscent of a librarian. Julia once remarked to me,“My favorite things are the park culture, to see how much the Russians use their public spaces, and the high value given to their culture. I lost count of how many Pushkin statues I've seen already, and how many artist's apartments were preserved and turned into museums.”

The sounds of rumbling below brought everyone to the windows. Crowds started cheering as tanks began to roll by. A little later, Putin’s face was on the computer screen addressing the Russian people. It was May 9, the day the Nazis were defeated, or also commonly known as Victory Day. Victory Day commemorates those who participated in the Great Patriotic War (as the Russians call it). An estimated 27 million people lost their lives in the Soviet Union during the war, and not a single family came out unscathed. Even 73 years later, people gather in throngs on the street to march to the Red Square. With friends from the hostel, I joined the crowd, and began to march forward. Around me people held ghostly images of loved ones from the war; faces never to be forgotten. We marched forward together, packed like sardines, but in good spirits. Every few minutes someone would yell “Hurrah!” and in sections, the crowd would respond. As I began shouting with the crowd, I was suddenly hit by a wave of bittersweet emotion.

In three weeks, I would be leaving Moscow to head back to Atlanta. My period in Russia was ending. After spouts of homesickness and depression, I slowly learned to appreciate Moscow. Through the experiences shared with vagabonds at a hostel, I gained an entirely new view of the city. By playing tourist, I found comfortability. Nine months later and I can honestly say that I love Russia.

Standing in the crowd, someone ahead of us shouted. The crowd responded like a wave, and as the shouting came crashing towards us I screamed, “Hurrah!”