Magazine article Russian Life

A Tale of Two Bottles

Magazine article Russian Life

A Tale of Two Bottles

Article excerpt

I was recently asked to offer some thoughts on the theme, "Turning Points." I immediately recalled two graphic turning points in my life. Both, as it turns out, had to do with a bottle.

Leningrad, 1982. It was the end of my first trip to the Soviet Union. As I stood in the hotel lobby, waiting for the airport bus, my last 20 rubles smoldered in my pocket. Across the lobby, I spotted a kiosk offering kitschy souvenirs and a small, 10 ruble bottle of vodka. Perfect.

"The bottle of vodka, please," I said, placing a ten ruble note on the counter.

"Nyet," the surly saleswoman snapped. "No vodka."

"Yes, there is vodka," I smiled. "It's there on the shelf behind you. 10 rubles. Vod-ka," I pronounced slowly in a thick Russian accent, vodka being one of the eight words in Russian I knew at the time.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"Nyet," she repeated, not bothering to look where I was pointing. "No vodka. Misha bear ten rubles."

"No, I don't want a Misha bear. I want vodka. Why no vodka?"

"Vodka nyet."

At that moment, all that I had failed to comprehend about Russia during my visit was telescoped into that singularly unobtainable bottle. The mystery of the saleswoman's obstinance haunts me to this day. …

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