Samara, Russia

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
Trip End Aug 10, 2007

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Flag of Russia  , Privolzhsky,
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Samara is another large city that sprawls along the banks of the Volga River.  Despite the presence of plenty of gruesome Soviet era concrete housing estates, the city has a more prosperous appearance than some of the others we visited and also some nice beaches along the Volga backed by a wide waterfront pedestrian promenade.  I also found it to be about the friendliest place we visited in Russia.  This is the city that was known as Kubyshev during the Soviet years after a local Communist who rose high in the party ranks in Moscow under Stalin, and was to have been the WWII capital had the Nazis taken Moscow.  Stalin's unused underground bunker is still one of the city's main sights.  However, we were in town on Victory Day and the sights were all closed for the holiday.

The best thing I can say about our hotel here is that it's at least on our guidebook maps.  The Hotel Volga is an old Intourist hotel and quite a letdown after our shiny modern digs in Kazan.  However, I believe everyone who visits Russia should stay in at least one old Intourist hotel, though, to get a feel for the old Soviet days when things that broke never got fixed - broken elevators, broken door locks, broken plumbing, showers without curtains, toilet seats with holes so large children and very skinny people could easily fall in, small dark rooms with faux wood paneling, dark hallways with ceramic wall tiles depicting strage fairytale like scenes, and a dining hall decorated in the finest mid-century Soviet kitsch of gray marble and bronze chandeliers. 

In this Soviet era hotel and in buildings throughout Russia it seems heating systems have only two settings, full force and off, with the apparent goal of maximizing waste.  So no matter how cold it may be outside you always have to leave the hotel room windows open to keep it from getting hot enough to burn your hands on the metal doorknobs.

I can't quite figure out why but in these old Soviet era style places the maids unmake your beds rather than make them for you.  Unlike more moden hotels where you get a thick warm duvet to sleep under, beds at old Soviet hotels come made with a nicely tucked in bottom sheet covered by an itchy-scratchy blanket, and always a very moth-eaten 40 year-old bed spread.  A neatly folded top sheet is always left on top on top of the bed, so you essentially have to make your bed yourself unless you want your body to be in direct contact with the itchy-scratchy blanket.  You try to leave your bed looking nice and neat in the morning so the floor lady/maid won't touch it, but inevitibly she will always pull out the top sheet, fold it neatly and place it back on top so you have to go through the chore of making your bed each night.

On our first night in Samara six of us (Dave, John, Lee, Carla, Carr, and I) went out in search of grog and grub and ended up at the Zhiguli Brewery, a late-nineteenth century brewery along the waterfront.  The restaurant has the cozy atmosphere of an old Russian inn with wooden booths with high straight backs.  Handicapped by the lack of any menus in English, we decided to keep things simple by all ordering the same thing - the house beer and Pelmeni.  Our waiter actually spoke some English and bore a striking resemblance to President Putin, despite being thirty years or so his junior. 

As we were finishing up our meals and second beers, a very handsome blond head of a man in his early thirties attached to some broad muscular shoulders appeared over the top of the booth back above me.  "Hallo, how you.  My name Dmitri", he said with heavy accent and the slight slur of someone who's had a bit too much vodka.  Dmitri asked us where we were from and whether we liked Russia.  Despite all having some mixed feelings after our recent experiences we all responded with variations of, "I love Russia".  After we each said where we were from, Dmitri responded with "I Love Amerika", "I Love Australia........England.........New Zealand........Ireland".  Dmitri sat back down.

Within about two minutes Mini-Putin brought a bottle a vodka and six shot glasses to our table and filled them.  Dmitri's head appeared over the booth again, chatted a bit more, and held his glass up in a toast, "To friendship for all our countries.  Nastrovie!"  We all toasted "Nastrovie" and tossed the shot back.  Dmitiri disappeared behind the booth.

In ten minutes or so Mini-Putin returned with the vodka bottle and poured us each another shot.  Dmitri's head popped over the booth again, and he asked us some more about what we were doing in Samara and where we were going.  Dmitri raised his glass and toasted, "You all make good travel.  Nastrovie!"  We all toasted "Nastrovie" and downed the shots.

We thanked Dmitri profusely for the shots as he and his entourage, a pretty blond woman hanging on his arm and two young men, left and said goodbye.  The last thing Dmitri said to us was, "Welcome to Russia!"  We were all very impressed by Dmitri's hospitality.  After finishing our beers we asked mini-Putin for our bill.  "Nyet, it is paid", he informed us.  Our jaws all dropped, astounded that a man at the next table in a restaurant would drop around 3,000 roubles (about $120) on a group of foreigners.  I don't know if Dmitri remembered his generosity to us the next morning, but if he did I hope he didn't regret it.  Only in Russia!

May 9 is Russia is Victory Day, the official commemoration of the end of WWII.  Russians date this to their conquest of Berlin (May 9, 1945) rather than the signing of the German surrender a few weeks later which we call V-E Day in most western countries.  Anyway, Victory Day is the biggest holiday of the year in Russia, especially since May Day lost all significance with the fall of Communism.  I was happy to be in a city on May 9 and eager to attend a real event of the type for which I had seen rehearsals a few weeks ago in Saint Petersburg.  The real thing would have not only lots of soldiers marching around and serious displays of military equipment but also honors given to aging war veterans, their entire chests covered with medals.  It would be a thorough photo fest.

I got up early and wandered toward Kubyshev Square where Samara's festivities were to be held, only to find the streets within several blocks of the square cordoned off by thousands of military police who were only letting selected people through.  I tried to wander through nonchalantly but got stopped with "Nyet!" several times.  I thought I'd tried a different tack and go directly to a checkpoint where people where showing their IDs to get in and show my passport, as if being a foreigner alone somehow grants me a kind of VIP status.  I showed my passport.  "Teeeeecket?", the officer asked.  "Toooreeest!", I responded, hoping it would work.  "Nyet, teeeecket!"  I tried this unsuccessfully at two other checkpoints before giving up.  There are places where simply being a foreigner gets you into privileges, but Russia's not one of them.  Like all the other little people, I had to be satisfied with a few glimpses of marching soldiers and moving equipment from several blocks away.

The real Victory Day celebrations for the masses in Samara took place later in the day along the Volga enbankment where large beer tents were set up along the waterfront for drinking and dancing.  Ironically for a day dedicated celebrating defeating Germany, a Bavarian Oktoberfest themed tent appeared to be one of the most popular.  Meanwhile, those with less money to spend sat in the grass drinking beer from plastic mini-kegs they refilled at big taps outside the Zhiguli Brewery. The hard-partying crowd was almost all young and friendly and the overall atmosphere not much different from holiday celebrations in other countries. 

I often wander about town along and can travel quite incognito as a foreigner, so I don't usually get into a lot of conversations with local people.  Here, though, I was part of a large group speaking English, so we quickly attacted a lot of attention.  After the fireworks display we were surrounded by a large crowd of teen boys who were full of beer, very happy, and eager to practice their English.  The 16-year old I conversed most with was named Alexei and was quite fascinated to meet a real live American.  "Oh, you Amerikan, You gangsta?", Alexei asked me.  "Amerika.  Gangstas. I want to be gangsta like Eminem.  Detroit.  You from Detroit?  I wan to be gangsta".  I told Alexei that in America you can be whatever you want to be.  "Even gangsta?", he asked. "Yes, even a gangster".  He was very impressed.
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