Last November, unbeknownst to most Russians, approximately 70 American students and expatriots gathered in a small American-run bar to celebrate the curious tradition of Thanksgiving dinner and football.
Everyone showed up eager to find a morsel of holiday familiarity.
A small group of us from the Polytechnical University were among the first to arrive.
We approached a harried woman who looked like she’d been locked in a cellar for a week. She seemed to be the one in charge. Before we could utter two words, however, she shouted, “Go talk to someone else!” She then muttered something about an incompetent staff and stormed off.
Not sure of where to sit or what the protocol was, we timidly took off our jackets and gathered around a small table. Within seconds, the proprietor marched up to our table with a roll of toilet paper in her hand and looked directly at me.
“I’m not going to take this anymore! I won’t have you putting a whole damn roll into the toilet. If you want to use toilet paper then you’ve got to give me your passport first. And you can’t have it back until I check the toilet!” She then marched back to the kitchen.
In a state of shock, we silently took napkins from the dispenser on the table and nervously stuffed our pockets.
Timorously we went to the bar to order drinks, where a disgruntled Russian informed us that we weren’t allowed anything but bottled beer until after 7 p.m. No one wanted to point out that it was in fact 7:02.
Slowly, other homesick Americans began to arrive, all hoping for turkey, cranberry sauce and football. I attempted on several occasions to strike up conversation with new faces, but to no avail. They were hungry, discontent, and terribly frightened of Aileen, the ogre of a restaurateur who couldn’t get the football came to come in on the big screen TV.
Dinner was slated to begin at seven, however it was not until eight that the first course was laid out on a small buffet table.
Immediately a line formed and salivating foreigners fought for food with passive revolt.
The first round consisted of cucumber salad, fresh bread, and the best coleslaw I’d ever had. After I inhaled my first plate, I returned for a little more of the slaw. A fellow student in front of me was modestly filling his plate for the first time when Aileen approached him, her frazzled hair a great representation of her madness.
She screamed, “What do you think this is, a buffet? There’s more food coming. Sit down!”
I didn’t have the gall to point out that it was in fact a buffet table. I thought that doing so just might end the evening with desert being apple a la Teeka-head. Instead I shamefacedly put my plate down and returned the table, cradling my bottle of wine for comfort.
It was another hour and a half before sweet Aileen came by our table and pleasantly informed us that our small dining chamber of three tables was going to have its own whole turkey – which we would have to cut ourselves. without a knife. We were also allowed to have our own heaping platters of side dishes. No buffet line.
A young Russian woman was sitting at a table next to ours with her laptop open. She had a book propped on her lap and was paying the commotion no mind. Aileen marched up to her and demanded to know if she was there for Thanksgiving.
She gave Aileen a scared, confused look and muttered, “Nyet.”
“Then get out of my bar!” Aileen shouted. The girl fumbled with words, but only momentarily, as the crazy lady slammed the laptop shut and screamed, “I’m not joking! Get the fuck out!”
My companions were mortified and several were kind enough to run after the woman and apologize on behalf of all Americans. I, however, found the whole situation to be quite humorous. And besides, now there was a table to cut the turkey on.
Before the dead bird finally made it to our dining chamber though, I went for a drink at the bar and stopped to visit with some friends sitting in the other room. Among them was a young man who worked at the restaurant. As we were conversing the charming hostess marched up and began yelling at him.
“Why aren’t all the potatoes cut? When I say cut the goddamn potatoes, I mean all of them, not just half!”
The cook shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly. “That wasn’t my job. You asked me to cook the vegetables.”
“If this was America you’d never get to sit in my restaurant again! You wouldn’t be sitting here now!” She then marched off to spread more holiday cheer.
The young man never batted an eye. He just shrugged and said, “Twenty four hours – she’ll be fine.”
The turkey was eventually served at 10 p.m., along with dozens of other dishes, and it proved to be well worth the madness.
Everything was by far the tastiest American fare I’d experienced in a long time.
I stayed for several more hours, drinking wine and conversing with two women from New York. Anne, a 61-year-old CEO of a financial PR firm was in St. Petersburg because the state hockey team had recruited her 17-year-old son to play for a season.
Her friend, Julie was just visiting for a week. They were acquainted with the proprietor and formally introduced me.
Aileen was originally from New York and had made more money and lost more money than I would ever make in a lifetime.
She loved that I was from Alaska. It seemed to mean that I wasn’t a “typical American” – the kind she’d expatriated from.
Shortly before I left for the metro station to go back to my dorms that night, I had the pleasure of making Aileen laugh. It was a rough scratchy sound, but it had the strength of water rushing from a breeched levy. I had told her the old adage about there being more men in Alaska than women: “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” It was a good note to end on.
Celebrating Thanksgiving in Russia was nothing like celebrating it at home with my family. It was, however, probably more like the original experience 500 years ago, when people from afar landed on foreign soil.
They were so hungry and discombobulated that a feast of any sort was better than being alone.