Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Coffee on the Arbat

I’ve only gone on one full-fledged, organized tour. It was a one-week tour to the Soviet Union, three nights each in Moscow and Leningrad, in 1990. The deal was too good to pass up. The tour, offered by Pan Am Holidays, cost a total of $1500; that included round-trip airfare from New York, hotels, transport between the two cities, guides and three (bad) meals a day. Pan Am was on its last legs, and they were giving away such incredible mileage bonuses to drum up business that I actually racked up enough points for 3/4 of a free ticket to India.

This was during the final days of the Gorbachev regime, and his reforms were in full swing. The tour took place around Orthodox Easter, and for the first time in Soviet history services were being televised on Russian television. Also on TV, much to my surprise, was a gender-bending, androgynous male vocalist who wore makeup and sang “Feelings” in English, changing the refrain to “I’m feeling so gay.”

The hotels were pretty awful, and we took most of our meals at them. Breakfast was especially dreadful because we couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee. Dishwater would have been an improvement.

One day, toward the end of the trip, I was strolling down the Arbat, Moscow’s famous pedestrian-only shopping street, with two women from the tour, sisters from Akron or Columbus or Toledo (I’m sure it wasn’t Cleveland or Cincinnati). We had been lamenting the lack of decent coffee. A few minutes later, as if by divine providence, I smelled the most wonderful, intense, fresh-ground coffee aroma. “Do you smell what I smell?” I asked the women, wondering if I was hallucinating.

“Coffee!” they said, in unison.

“We have to find out where it’s coming from,” I said. Like some cartoon character I began to follow the scent, leading with my nose. I was on the right track, because the smell kept getting more intense. Finally we reached Mecca. It was a dark, little coffee bar with an Italian-style espresso machine. I couldn’t believe my luck.

At the time I preferred to drink coffee with milk. I had taken a surprisingly effective two-day Russian for Travelers class at the New School, so I had a few phrases and a little vocabulary under my belt.

“U vas jest coffee s’malako?” I asked. (“Do you have coffee with milk?”)

“Nyet, tolka chorniy,” the counter man replied. (“No, only black.”)

So I ordered a black coffee. What I got was a full cup of intense, delicious espresso, a triple at least. I can’t remember how many rubles or kopeks it cost me, but it was incredibly cheap, something like a quarter.

It may not have been the best coffee I’ve ever had, but it was definitely the best in context.


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