Monday, November 7, 2011

Endangered traditions - Moscow, Russia

Riumochnaya na Bolshoi Nikitskoi (in Russian Рюмочная на Большой Никитской, which means "Vodka glass on Nikitskaya Road") is one of the last, maybe the very last place of its type in Moscow. It looks like an old Italian osteria: a few squared tables scattered around a fairly small room, light curtains on the windows facing the sidewalk, a counter made of wood, like the bottle shelves and the panels that cover the walls. A messy toilet and a cubbyhole/storeroom. The supporters of sophisticated modernity at all costs can say what they want: I don't need much more than this to spend a couple of those hours which good memories are made of.
As soon as you enter you choose a table (after 6pm they might all be taken), then you go and get your orders directly at the counter, where you can find the courses of the day on display: meat, fish and vegetables, both cooked and row dishes. While the lady is heating your portions in the microwave you can order your drinks. The house specialty, of course, is vodka. You order it by the gram (yes, gram, neither bottle nor glass, nor with volumetric units of measure). 300 grams can fill a cruet and it's enough to make two people equipped with well armored livers feel the maggots crawling in their brains until bed time.
When everything is set up on our table we gulp down the first glassful, in one swallow. Then, in order to create the necessary sponge effect, we gobble up a delicious chicken breast topped up with sour cream, some lentils and a good portion of bread. 
"Between the first and the second glass nobody talks!" The Russian rule guarantees that the shortest possible time elapses between the first two sessions. C. and I are two incurable Italians though, and we are not able to undergo such an alcoholic-sect-ritual without indulging in a couple of comments before we drink our second glass, which we only half fill, just in case. This food is really tasty and we order a second round. 
Even some customers here - conforming to the style of the place - are very characteristic. The most picturesque ones are some unknown, semi-alcoholic artists. A poet whose verses have never seen a printing house hear us talking Italian and draws near. White hair and beard, already tipsy, with rudimentary English he indulges in typical bar pastimes that could work in Italy as well: jokes about Putin and Berlusconi and comments on unrestrained immigration, that in the case of Moscow is coming mostly from the former Caucasian and Eastern Soviet republics. When this lingua franca is not helping him he speaks Russian with C., who in turn translates what he says for me.
He leaves us for a moment, pinches the can of Sprite of a man who's reading a paper a few meters away and takes it to his own table. The other guy - a younger version of our friend, with still black hair and beard - fumes and complains a little at first but finally stands up and joins him. The newcomer speaks much better English and introduces himself as an artist too, without specifying his field.
After another hour of jokes, comments, talking, translations, snacks and vodka we stand up, we say bye like respectable drunkards do - with energetic hugs, awkward handshakes, foul breath and sentimental sentences - and then with a staggering walk we go out of the place, where we enjoy the pinch of the October cold on our spirit-inflamed cheeks.
A piece of tradition that holds out in the very heart of Moscow, right in front of the conservatory. Like the popular banyas - centers with saunas and steam baths, consisting of huge, badly lighted and worse furnished rooms, simple equipments and dingy structures, where groups of friends or colleagues spend a few hours talking and relaxing, while sweating near the oven, shivering in the freezing pool, flogging themselves with birch and oak twigs or sipping tea and eating snacks in the refreshment area - hold out amid the new luxurious wellness centers.
It would have taken very little to be still able to enjoy such an evening in Italy as well: we could have avoided to replace at least one quarter of our old osterie with trendy pizzerie or - even worse - pretentious wine bars. But in most of the cities that I know of, ruining is a service provided in full, and that little conservation effort was not made. The old simple wine list (1. red, 2. white, 3. prosecco, all of them strictly "of the house") was replaced by a sequence of names that I hardly understand and that, unlike a lot of people, I don't enjoy pretending to know. Bottles with wonderful labels of high-sounding origin that have absolutely nothing to do with the local territory and culture, sold by the glass (beautifully made crystal goblets that many hold by the stem with recently developed presumptuousness, swollen like barrels but thriftily served only one-third filled) at the price of a full bottle of the good old poison.
Times change, traditions die. A good nostalgic as I am, I enjoy looking for them elsewhere.

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