Ruski Niet
By Lydia on January 18, 2009 12:05 PM| | Comments (0)
Day Two of METEOREX. Last night, everyone's biggest competitor, the Finnish company Vaisala, hosted an opening reception. It was held at a nearby hotel and they bussed us over from the expo hall. We had to wait a bit to get in, and in doing so at the hotel bar I learned an important lesson about the service industry: it can only really be accurately called that when the employees work for tips. As it is in Russia, bartenders work for a wage, expecting nothing from you, the thirsty customer. Therefore, they really couldn't give a damn about pouring you a #7 or whatevs, preferring instead to slouch around avoiding eye contact and talk with coworkers. Soon, though, we were allowed into the party, where long white laid tables were set buffet style with small goblets of vodka, trays of canapes, and red and white wines. This was kind of a relief, as it seems that outside of the Beer Renaissance of America and the Middle West Esp. beer is almost universally boring, and often just bad. Here we have an amazing range of styles and brands, and at least a few of them are available in almost any bar or market you go to, but this couldn't seem further from the truth in other parts of the world. How many times, traveling, have you been offered a Heineken? Blerg. The choices in St. Petersburg were mostly Guinness, Kilkarny, Heineken, and occasionally an unpronounceable Russian beer you tended to order by pointing at the tap. Of these options I consider half to be serviceable, get the job done beers, but all are disappointing. That said, if you dig wheat beers, or flat-tasting creamy Guinness brands, or slightly sour lagers you are in luck here!

Conference day two we are really settling in for the long haul. I am getting more and more comfortable discussing upper air sounding systems in general, and the iMet-1 family of radiosondes in specific. Cristo, our colleague from Intermet Africa, has arrived with his Dutch-born girlfriend, Hedwig, and though Hedwig is out sightseeing, the booth feels crowded with three. Still, it is nice to have the company. The routine of the exhibition gets dull very quickly, especially when there are no customers. Strictly speaking, no one expects to sell anything. The term "customer" refers here to any number of middle-aged men working for meteorological departments and universities in foreign countries whom we would like to acquaint with with our company in the blind hope that someday they may remember our name and actually buy something.

Cristo has a friend from Moscow, a slight man named Alex, and he and his girlfriend take us to dinner at a Russian chain restaurant (Pectopah.) My notes from the meal are a tad scattered, distracted somewhat by the giant fake tree growing out of the middle of the floor. Six feet in diamater, I swear, the thing was festooned with birdhouses, taxidermied peeping squirrels, and lights. The "Enchanted Faux Countryside" theme extended varily to picket fence along the walls, plastic indian corn and sunflowers, stray Russian style boots perched in baskets on windowsills and on top of cupboards, and a huge moose head over the salad bar. Our hosts, Alex and Anya, are already there, at a large table near some whimsical mallards flying by patchwork curtains, and they are drinking something brown from a decanter. They tell us is is "kvas" and laugh when we wonder if it is alcoholic. "No alcoholic, it is kvass!" Well, ok. Turns out that kvass is a sweet, carbonated beverage made by fermenting bread and honey. It is earthy and delicious.

The talk at dinner, over plates of beets and herring, over stoganoff and grilled pork cutlet (the waiter, in full "peasant" garb) started with Anya and Alex, in Russian, moved on to Cristo and Hedwig who pointed at their choices of entree, then looked at me expectantly. Pork? I say, and he looks startled, and comes over so I can point as well. Stupid braid.) turns to the differences between pre- and post-Soviet Russia, and then to pre- and post-Apartheid South Africa. Alex says that he misses the sense of community that used to unite neighbors, something he finds missing now. Cristo pulls out a present for him, a smuggled packet of South African dried meat, something my father refers longingly to as "Zoo Animal Jerky."

The food was good enough, I suppose, but not nearly as memorable as that huge damn tree. We had some shots of vodka to tide us over the walk home, which is incredibly cold, windy, and unpleasant, and I have to struggle to not be a whiner.

Day three of the conference, and my dad keeps referring to the "second week of deer camp," when everyone is a little tired of the whole endeavor. The Russians seem to have packed it up already, and we follow suit midday. It only takes a few minutes to roll up our posters and mash our sticky putty into a ball. We haul our things outside to where the local taxi mafia waits to overcharge us for the ride back to the hotel, and after some fierce haggling we agree to only twice the going rate and are safely on our way.

We decide to spend some of the remaining day walking about the university district near the hotel where we find that one of the main pastimes of Russian women is shopping for boots. Specifically, shopping for knee high black leather boots. Every one of them already has on a pair, but I am starting to think they may each have six or seven pairs at home, too. I have been wanting some of them too, and so I drag my poor father through 10 or 12 stores, trying to explain that shopping is always harder when you know exactly what you want. After looking at a thousand pairs or so everything is starting to run together, so we give up and stop at a bar for a beer before meeting Cristo and Hedwig for dinner. I still feel a little guilty about making my poor father tour that many crowded shoe stores.