Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Is there a Ministry of Approving Restaurant Menus?

It was snowing lightly in Vienna on Tuesday – but this hardly counts at all after our experiences in Russia. But it is nice to be able to walk along the streets without having to negotiate metre high piles of snow and ice.

Russians seem to place very little importance on the availability, location or condition of toilets. They are hardy souls and I guess these things are just not important. They were important to me because I am not accustomed to wandering snow covered streets in temperatures as low as -15°.

I am sure there is a good reason why toilets in Russia do not have seats. I can’t think what it is but I will do some research and let you know if I find out.

There must also be a reason for the most terrifying thing I have ever seen in a toilet anywhere in the world. I am working hard on getting it out of my head so am not going to describe it here – and you wouldn’t believe me anyway.

Every toilet I saw in Russia had an attendant – usually a woman – and usually with the same demeanor as the Metro ticket sellers. It seems that the role of the Toilet Attendant is to first remove the toilet seats and then to stop any cleaners from entering the toilets. In both this tasks they have an impeccable record.

While we were in Moscow we scuttled from Red Square into the GUM Department Store to get out of the driving snow. I went looking for a toilet and was directed outside and down into a freezing dungeon, where I found holes in the floor over which one must hover – or perch.

I would not have done this unless I really had to. I will say no more on this subject except that it was a scarifying experience, was something I will never ever do again, has probably caused permanent psychological damage, has improved my balancing skills – but didn’t do any physical harm apart from my needing a couple of stitches from my travelling sewing kit.

Everyone is Russia has a uniform – yes even the toilet attendants. Everyone wants to see your passport. Everyone wants you to have a piece of paper – but always a different piece. We went into a couple of restaurants where the menus have official looking stamps and are signed. What is this? Is there a Ministry of Approving Restaurant Menus?

People are invariably friendly (apart from the Metro ticket sellers) but speak almost no English so it can be a struggle – particularly when signs and menus are exclusively in Russian. This is fine – it’s their country – and we managed by use of sign language and charades. We only admitted defeat once when we went into a place called Tepemok which sells Blinis - and there was not an English word in sight – and very few pictures.

In Moscow we found a branch of Le Pain Quotidien which is the brand of café we used to frequent in Sydney so we felt quite at home as we munched on croissants and watch the snow pelting down outside.

As the only registered Sailor and qualified Navigator in the group Gwenyth was our guide in Russia and we stumbled along blindly behind her. She was wearing a white fur hat which we could always keep in sight – which is just as well because she moves like a startled gazelle. She gave a phenomenal performance in the Metro in both Moscow and St Petersburg and got us everywhere we needed to go.

She also got us through the Hermitage in good time – mainly because she breaks into a gallop at the sight of anything religious – and there is a fair bit of this around. We had a two day pass which we bought before we went (a very wise move indeed) but only spent about four hours in total in that vast place.

Gwenyth’s only real problem is that she sometimes gets the direction wrong by 180 degrees and needed the assistance of my iPhone maps to get her bearings. (Low cloud prevented her from using her Sextant). I would have thought this would be a major and career limiting problem for a sailor – but once she gets a sniff of the right direction she is off like a rat up a drainpipe.

1 comment:

  1. I read the camera story last night, did not comment, too close to home , I have been there more than once before). Contemplated playing Beethoven's Missa Solemnis (after all, it was performed in Petersburg for the first time in St. Petersburg some 180 years ago!).

    It snowed all night here, in the hills of Schönbrunn. Suppose the Stadtpark got a few flakes too.

    Happy New Year!
    Pleeease, get a camera bag that you can keep in front of you.
    Those rucksacks are a thief's treasure trove. No way to protect one's goods on the back!